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A backstage pass with the Rolling Stones

They call their concert tour, a “Bigger Bang,” and for the Rolling Stones, it is more than a catchy name, it’s a promise to their fans. But what the fans don’t see is the work that goes into it.
Courtesy Jake Cohl
/ Source: Dateline NBC

They call their concert tour, a “Bigger Bang,” and for the Rolling Stones, it is more than a catchy name, it’s a promise to their fans.

But what the fans don’t see is the work that goes into it. The Stones may say, “It’s only rock 'n roll,” but everything ran more like a corporation. When you peek behind the curtain, you see it practically takes a village to pull off a show of this magnitude.

We met up with the Stones at Boston's Fenway Park while they were rehearsing, and again in Hartford, Connecticut, their second stop. I toured backstage and talked to the band, as we counted down to their show:

5:15 p.m.
Less than four hours until show time, we take the walk down to the mammoth six-story, 400-ton steel set, the same route the Stones will soon take to get to the stage and perform for some 40,000 fans.

It takes 160 people to load up and take down the stage. From the moment the trucks arrive, it takes 16 hours until the set is complete.

Jagger is in high spirits. The reviews for the Boston opening night concert were uniformly positive, and The New York Times marveled that the Stones are “defying age.”

And watching Mick Jagger, you can see why. At 62-years-old, the Stones’ leading man still has the swagger and strut that made him an icon. Jagger trains like an athlete—working out before every show.

Matt Lauer: You use every inch of the stage.Mick Jagger: This is pretty narrow actually. Lauer: [Right now,] it’s like 50 years or 60 yards.Jagger: Fenway was over 300 feet. This is much narrower.Lauer: So what do you put in — a couple of miles during the show?Jagger: I don’t know what it is. Up and back. Like any sport, you got to pace yourself. You don’t run the whole time.Lauer: So how tightly-choreographed is the show?  In other words, how many times during the show do you have to be in a specific spot?Jagger: I don’t have to be anywhere. The lighting people kind of prefer to know when I’m gonna do something because otherwise they lose me.  But, you know, it’s pretty loose, it’s a rock show, it’s not a ballet. In this point after two shows, it’s very loose.Lauer: You’re still ad-libbing.Jagger: Very ad lib to me. Lauer: I saw some of the Fenway tape.  And by the end of the show, you were still going back and forth and out in the crowd.  And it seemed to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, — when it was over, when the encore was over, you were so juiced up, it almost looked like you didn’t want to leave the stage.Jagger: Right. You know, you get excited.  And it was the first couple of shows. You get like, after show 61, you’re a bit more used to it all…

5:30 p.m.
Drummer Charlie Watts arrives on stage. The 64-year-old is happy to be there, after surviving throat cancer just this past year.

Lauer: How are you feeling?Charlie Watts: I’m all right—I’ve had a terrible year.Lauer: I know, it’s unbelievable.Watts: I’m actually very well, and very lucky to be here I think.Lauer: How do you work, after the health issues you’ve had? How do you get your stamina up to start a tour like this?Watts: When they say you’ve got cancer, I thought, well, I knew I wouldn’t die that night, but I knew it was like a year to go, and I’d really look awful at the end.  And I did. Six months later, I did look pretty rotten.  I wasn’t as bad as a lot of people I saw.  Lauer: So going through something like that, does it make the start of a tour like this a different experience?Watts: In Boston, I think. You know, you know, I’m so lucky to be here.

Soon, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood are also on stage. It’s time for the Stones to go over the set list for tonight’s show.

6:15 p.m.
It’s two and a half hours before show time, and anywhere the Stones play, this is the time where they get together on stage for the sound check. They go over the technical aspects of the show and it would be the best ticket in town.

7:00 p.m.
Two hours before show time, I met up with Keith Richards as he’s hurriedly transported by golf cart from the stage to his dressing room.

Lauer: What’s the vibe like being back on tour?Keith Richards: Well, as you can see, it pretty much is like what you see.  And it’s pretty good man. You know, the first two shows were incredible.  I’ve never known many shows to go that well. I’ve never known Mick to be so confident.Lauer: But when somebody comes to see show, they don’t want to watch you make it look hard, they want to see you make it look easy.  But what’s amazing when you come here behind the scenes is how many moving parts there are and how many little details have to come together on stage.Richards: The first few shows on any tour, you kind of look at what you’ve built. You’ve got the sound system, you’ve got the lights, you’ve got the stage, you’ve got the band — and you say you hope it clicks at once, you know?

It’s already clicking as far as ticket sales. About 98 percent of the shows are sold out and there are still more concerts yet to be scheduled in Europe, Australia and Asia.

Lauer: Do you ever get tired of the view [from the stage] when the seats are full?

Jagger: That’s a good view.  I can hardly see it, though, when I’m up here, to be honest.Lauer: You don’t see faces you just see a sea—Jagger: Well, you see faces at the front, but this is all dark, you know, and it has a completely magic, different look at night then it does in the day.Lauer: Do you ever forget where you are in terms of what city?Jagger: No, I always know where I am.Lauer: You’ve never done—Jagger: “Where are we now anyway?”Lauer: "Hello—we love you Hartford," and the guy screams out to you to correct you, "Providence—"Jagger: I’ve never done it.  No, never done it.  It’s one of my nightmares.Lauer: I can imagine.

Later, all the fans who have been waiting all afternoon are let inside.

And soon, it’s crunch time. Just about an hour until the show, but Keith Richards still has a few moments to reflect on what it’s like to be part of one of rock n' roll’s most enduring partnerships.

Lauer: I read a quote and I loved it. It was in Newsweek, and it said “Richards is there to remind Jagger that he’s a musician, and Jagger is there to remind Richards that he is a star.”Richards: That’s an interesting one.. yeah.. I really always think that Mick underestimated himself, and he’s underestimated as a musician per se.Lauer: So what about the other side of that. Are you underestimated as a star? Do you underestimate yourself as a star?Richards: I don’t know, because I mean, I’ve sort of been once since I was 19. And I really don’t think about it. I maybe I forget I am one... and that’s where I screw up sometimes… (laughs). Whatever we do, one of us complements the other on what the other one doesn’t have. Somehow, for some reason… it’s a chemistry thing.

Close to 8 o’clock, show time
Inside Ron Wood’s dressing room, it’s an oasis of calm.

Lauer: We’re looking at hour and a half before show time right now.  You seem as relaxed and calm as a guy can get.  Is that a little misleading?  Is there something else going on inside?Ron Wood: No, I really feel comfortable.  Like Keith and I have this same “Can’t wait to get on stage for a bit of peace and quiet.”Lauer: Yeah, right.Wood: Because we’re all always doing things, always being dragged here, there, and everywhere.  And like when we get on stage we can go-- now it’s just me and my guitar and the gang.  You know?  And we interact with each other and feel comfortable.  I mean, the shows in Boston… I’ve never felt more comfortable.  It’s still work, loads of chords going through my head, all the changes, all the cues that you have to remember.  And—you know—“don’t go here, there, and do this now…”Lauer: Yeah, there’s a lot more choreography than people realize.Wood: Oh yeah. But it keeps getting better and better. Nowadays we’re striving for one day we might get it right.

Finally, it’s show time, another chance to get it right. The Stones take the walk they’ve taken countless times over the past 40 years.

A packed stadium waits for the group known as the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band to make “A Bigger Bang,” just as promised.

And in case you were wondering, yes, Mick Jagger did remember where they were.

The band took time off from its worldwide tour Saturday night to help the victims of Katrina. You may have caught them  and some other stars  on the telethon sponsored by MTV and VH1.  The Stones’ next stop: New York City.