By Jonathan Perry, Globe Correspondent, 9/6/2002
FOXBOROUGH - So, are the Rolling Stones the ''world's greatest rock 'n' roll band?'' Such labels are silly to begin with, of course, and over time they become a hollow slogan, a marketing tool. The Stones, once upon a time, were indeed perhaps the very best at what they did and what they personified, which was as pure and as elemental a definition of rock 'n' roll as you were likely to find anywhere.
What they are now, 40 years after they played their first show, is one of the most lucrative brand names in entertainment. The band's lapping-tongue logo is as immediately recognizable as Coca-Cola's trademark or Nike's ''swoosh'' symbol. Oh, they also remain something else, when they occasionally get together to perform as they did before a delirious crowd of 53,000 at Gillette Stadium last night: a pretty fair band with the deepest catalog in rock, still capable of flashing diamond-hard brilliance.
During a 21/2-hour show, and the second stop on the band's ''Licks World Tour,'' the Stones delivered a career-spanning overview heavy on hits, and even tossed in a few welcome covers. Otis Redding's ''Can't Turn You Loose'' was a kinetic treat, and a wiry, salacious ''Monkey Man'' from the band's seminal ''Let It Bleed'' album was a bonus.
Although this was a landmark rock show at the new monstrously huge stadium, the Stones managed to fill the considerable space with bright, snarling sound and a relatively spartan yet visually engaging stage show.
What's always been missing on the Stones' stadium tours is that electric intimacy and ragged ferocity that used to be their calling card. Singer Mick Jagger's strutting cock-of-the-walk gestures, out of necessity, have become exaggerated to the point of self-parody - a hollow imitation of the leering, prancing Mick that danced all those years ago.
That said, Jagger's singing on stage has arguably improved over the years.
And last night he was in top form. He slammed hard and clear into ''Brown Sugar'' and drew his vowels out as wide as the grin on guitarist Keith Richards' face as both cut into a corrosive `Start Me Up.''
Jagger's voice was all bitter tears on ''Angie,'' and with Richards and guitarist Ron Wood on acoustic guitars, the song felt like an elegiac farewell.
''Gimme Shelter,'' however, sounded a bit listless, with none of the urgency the song calls for. ''Rock and a Hard Place,'' from the lackluster ''Steel Wheels'' album, paled alongside a walloping ''Jumpin' Jack Flash'' and a beautifully decadent ''Midnight Rambler.''
The Stones showcased selections from their 1978 ''Some Girls'' album on the smaller B stage at the center of the field. They opened with a tattered version of ''Shattered'' before lighting into ''Beast of Burden'' and ''Miss You,'' with Jagger playing scruffy harmonica.
Also from the ''Some Girls'' album, with Keith in relatively healthy rasp and wearing his low-slung Telecaster as usual, was ''Before They Make Me Run,'' which was an earlier highlight on the main stage.
That's the Stones for you. Every time you count them out, they surprise you with a kick where it counts and, against all odds at this late stage of the game, you find yourself getting your ya-ya's out.
The openers, the Pretenders delivered a strong set chock-full of their hits, which tended to set the party mood.
Although this was the first, large-scale rock show at Gillette, stadium manager Dan Murphy reported no problems as showtime approached.
''We've been preparing for this for months,'' said Murphy. ''The Stones came in about 8 or 9 days ago and have had a couple of great days of sound rehearsals. Everything has gone smoothly.''
The Rolling Stones