Who's the greatest rock 'n' roll band of them all?
Certainly not, at this late date, the Rolling Stones.
In their 50th year, the Stones have long since stopped doing the thing that great rock 'n' roll bands do: Make new music that matters a great deal to their audience.
Instead, what Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and company are in the business of is mounting massive greatest-hits tours like the highly entertaining 50 & Counting trek that hit the stage at 9 p.m. sharp Tuesday (with "Get Off of My Cloud") and kept the crowd of more than 15,000 on its feet for more than two hours at the Wells Fargo Center. (The band returns to South Philadelphia on Friday.)
Unlike chronological peers such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and David Bowie, the Stones - who performed on a stage in the shape of a giant pair of lips, with Jagger prancing busily along the outer reaches of the "Tongue Pit," while the other band members mostly huddled around the still masterfully minimalist drummer Charlie Watts - barely pay lip service to the idea that new songs should be a part of their working repertoire.
Sure, there were two new tunes worked in - "Doom & Gloom," which mentions "fracking for oil" as one item on a laundry list of reasons to be depressed, and "One More Shot" - both from last year's best-of set, GRRR! But those numbers are structured into the show as the crowd's first opportunity for a bathroom (or beer) break.
That was followed shortly by another, featuring back-to-back songs sung by Richards, which on this night were a stripped-down, winningly raw "You Got the Silver," with Richards and Ronnie Wood on acoustic guitar, plus a revved-up, full-band version of "Before They Make Me Run."
Other than that, it was pretty much one iconic hit after another.
Those ranged from "Paint It Black," "Gimme Shelter" (featuring a powerhouse star turn by back-up singer Lisa Fischer), and "Wild Horses" early on, to the three-song encore of a stately "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (accompanied by the Chestnut Hill-based, 24-member choral group the Crossing), a robust "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and a closing "Satisfaction," on which the ensemble was joined by guitarist Mick Taylor, a member of the band from 1969 to '74 who also distinguished himself on an extended, ragged-but-right version of "Midnight Rambler."
In between, Jagger worked the room with relentless flair, opening the evening in a glittering silver jacket and later wrapping himself in a floor-length fur for a "Sympathy for the Devil" that was wickedly good. "It's Philadelphia's birthday, I read it in the paper," Jagger said at one point, thanking "your Mayor Nutter" for officially naming this week Rolling Stones Week, and wishing the city a happy 331st. Later, the 69-year-old Richards - the same age as his co-band leader - told the crowd, "It's your birthday, not mine. I don't know which one's older."
The Wells Fargo Center looked full, but there were tickets still available on the day of the show (as there are for Friday, at comcasttix.com). With a significant number going for as much as $597, the Stones made the miscalculation of pricing their most expensive seats so high that their business practices - rather than the fact that the most archetypal rock 'n' roll band in the world still sounds as good as it does - became the dominant media (and social-media) story.
Did fans who could afford it get what they wanted, or at least what they needed, out of the first Stones shows in Philadelphia since 2005? When he spoke with The Inquirer in April, Jagger emphasized that for him, what rock 'n' roll is about, above all, is energy. And on Tuesday, he and his bandmates - plus country star Brad Paisley, who sat in on a "by request" segment voted on by fans, performing "Dead Flowers" - delivered plenty of that, particularly in the latter stages of the show, from "Honky Tonk Women" on.
They weren't always precise. Jagger, who performs without visible teleprompters, had a senior moment, it seemed, during "Miss You," in which he forgot the lyrics to one verse (or maybe chose to leave it out), instead imploring Darryl Jones to cover for him: "Play some bass, Darryl." Which he did, quite ably.
But then, error-free exactitude has never been what the Rolling Stones have been about. A sense of risk, of danger, or at least the possibility that the band's lewd, crude, and often mighty roar could fall apart is a part of the appeal.
On Tuesday, the Stones were a bit slow to lock into gear, but Richards and Wood's criss-crossed guitars were sharp and cutting pretty much all evening long. And as the show went from strength to strength down the stretch - "Start Me Up," "Tumbling Dice," "Brown Sugar" - the past-retirement-age band still delivered the trusty riffs with a lusty swagger that was not to be denied, even if you had to take out a new mortgage on your house to buy your way into the room.