Monday 16th of September 2002.

4500 people were amazed. Again a fantastic show. U2 singer Bono joined The Rolling Stones on one song, and so did Dr. John. The audience got what they came for - satisfaction.

Set list: Start Me Up - Live With Me - Rocks Off - Hand Of Fate - Torn And Frayed - Worried About You - Everybody Needs Somebody To Love - Walk And Don't Look Back - Dance Part 2 - Bitch - Slipping Away - Happy - It's Only Rock'n'Roll - Going To A Go-Go - I Just Want To Make Love To You - Honky Tonk Women - Rip This Joint - Can't You Hear Me Knockin - Jumping Jack Flash - Brown Sugar - Tumbling Dice

Rolling Stones at the Aragon Ballroom

By Greg Kot

Sloppiness can cost a violinist a job with the symphony orchestra. It can deny even a millionaire access to a restaurant. And it will definitely get a student a one-way ticket to the principal's office.

But sloppiness is a virtue, even an art form, in the hands of the Rolling Stones.

And the slop was flying Monday at the Aragon Ballroom as the Stones closed their three-night, week-long residency in Chicago. During their Golden Age as the bad boys who scored the most drugs, had the kinkiest sex and sported the best don't-give-a-frig sneer since Marlon Brando sat astride a motorcycle in "The Wild One," the Stones embodied a loose, lascivious hedonism.

Sure, Keith Richards supplied an endless supply of riffs that brought the rock down like thunder, but the Stones played around the chords as much as on top of them, the music snaking, collapsing and then rising again with a thrilling, teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos lack of precision. It was rock soaked in blues feeling and informed by jazz improvisation. The Stones made the space between the notes count every bit as much as the notes themselves, with the way Charlie Watts dragged behind the beat or Richards bent a chord just south of where one expected it to land.

But lately, the Stones have been all about precision. Businessmen that they have become, they believe in rehearsal like never before, and have streamlined their sets in the last decade to focus on only the best known material, the biggest hits, in exchange for the most exorbitant ticket prices in rock history. The swagger would return in spurts — Richards and Watts off in their own world of groove while Mick Jagger pranced and Ronnie Wood grinned that charmed grin of his — but one sensed that the Stones had just about run out of surprises in the last decade. They had become a machine, albeit a well-oiled one. Repetition and reliability had become the Stones' watchwords, rather than risk and rebellion.

Enough's enough

But on this latest swing through town, it was as if the Stones finally said, "Enough!" Even they seemed bored with the set list, so they made a point of shaking it up, mixing in choice — but rarely performed — album tracks and covers with the usual hits. Last week at the United Center and Comiskey Park, they pulled out surprises such as a cover of the O Jay's "Love Train" and the faux country ballad "Far Away Eyes." On Monday, they took their most adventurous turn yet; they didn't play "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," still their signature song, and ignored a few other standards: "Sympathy for the Devil," "Gimme Shelter," "Street Fighting Man," "Miss You."

Instead, they threw themselves into songs that sounded scruffy 'round the edges, with Wood and Richards seemingly figuring out the chords as they went on the biting but rarely performed "Hand of Fate," bending notes until they cried on Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You," and joining the horns in blaring triumph on "Live With Me," a long-overlooked slice of sheer nastiness from "Let It Bleed." Throughout the 20-song set, Watts snapped at the cymbals and thumped his kick drum with a force that belied his benign tea-sipping expression.

With Chuck Leavell on keyboards doing a fine Johnnie Johnson impersonation, the Stones once again channeled their inner Chuck Berry, and made their debt to the grand old man of rock 'n' roll guitar clearer than ever on "Rip This Joint" and "I Know It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)." Even the latter song, which has become a rote crowd-pleaser on recent tours, took on an air of what next? when Bono from U2 improbably walked on stage to join Mick Jagger in a ragged duet. Bono began improvising lines, interpolating a bit of Smokey Robinson's "Going to a Go-Go," while Jagger beamed approval.

Still-pliable voice

Jagger didn't seem to mind being momentarily upstaged; he had already put in a good night's work. "Worried About You," an obscurity plucked from the 1981 "Tattoo You" album, became a showcase for his still pliable-voice, as he ranged into a falsetto that, for once, didn't smack of the sarcasm that sometimes undercuts the band's attempts at soul-ballad sincerity. On "Rocks Off," he made the line "The sunshine bores the daylights outta me" ring with a bone-chilling mix of rage, exhaustion and, this time, perfectly appropriate sarcasm.

The singer and his bandmates threw themselves into these songs with a casual disregard for professionalism — the curse of all great rock bands who go the stadium route. This is how the Stones operated when at the peak of their powers, taking on everything from honky-tonk to gospel with an indomitable swagger that tolerated mistakes but not a lack of feeling. "Torn and Frayed" lived up to its title, and it felt more real because of it, Richards adding slapdash harmonies on top of Woods' sighing pedal-steel. Soloman Burke's soul classic "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" went to church behind Chuck Leavell's Hammond organ. It was followed by the even more rarely performed "Don't Look Back," a Temptations song that Jagger and Peter Tosh transformed into a minor pop-reggae hit in the late '70s. The Stones are hardly the world's greatest Jamaican rhythm section, but their corruption of sacred musical traditions is perhaps the Stones' greatest contribution to rock history.

A band at play

On this night, they were back to their old errant ways. There were bum notes and off-key harmonies, but there was a sense of rock 'n' roll band not just at work, but once again at play. The closing rush of hits — "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar," "Tumblin' Dice" — was a reminder of the band's towering chart successes. But it was the adventurous instrumental coda to "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" that reminded die-hards that the Stones haven't been completely swallowed by the machine they have built. As Watts slipped jazzy off-beats that made the sonic turf slip and slide beneath the soloists, saxophonist Bobby Keys worked like a snake charmer and then Wood massaged a few noodled notes into long, fractured solo that climaxed with a triumphant chord.

It's way past time for the Stones to reinvent themselves. But the band has rediscovered what it does best. Undoubtedly there will be more stadium shows in their future, with wall-to-wall hits and big video screens. But Monday was a reminder that the Stones are still best when they get their hands dirty.

The Aragon Ballroom show has been my favorite show to date (through 2007). It was the Stones as they were meant to be seen and heard. In a smoky, hot, crowded room playing rarities and blues with abandon. Each new number elicited an audible wow from the crowd. I walked from one side of the room to the other during the show, watching the band first from stage left, then from the back dead center, then from the right and all the way back again. Nothing like it. Sloppy, maybe, raw, yes...but that's rock n' roll. We left there amazed that night, we tried to eat Chinese at a place next door and were so geared up we couldn't even eat!