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The Rolling Stones closeup: Club concert is as good as it gets

The room was so small, it was like everyone was in the front row. You walked into the throbbing, smoky space and edged past the bruisers in the black T-shirts, and suddenly, between two big speaker stands, not more than 10 feet away, you saw a flash of a red shirt and the wave of an arm, and there he was, Mick Jagger.

The Rolling Stones came to Chicago on Thursday night and played a club date. It was like the Chicago Symphony visiting your poker night. The Stones, who launch their new "Bridges to Babylon" world tour here Tuesday and Thursday with concerts at Soldier Field (capacity 50,000), warmed up with a concert at the Double Door (capacity 500) on North Milwaukee Avenue.

It was one of those evenings to tell your grandchildren about. And the Stones have been around so long, their fans have grandchildren. But the band has remained immune to time, and there they were on the tiny stage, Jagger and Keith Richards and Ron Wood and Charlie Watts, and the more recent addition, Darryl Jones - the best rock and roll band in the world, playing like it was fun and they never wanted to stop.

From classics like "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar" and "Honky Tonk Woman" to a cover version of the Jimmy Reed song "Shame Shame Shame," the Stones played maybe a dozen songs, back to back, Jagger asking the crowd in between, "Do ya feel all right?"

The 400 lucky fans were joined by about 100 assorted friends of the band, its Toronto-based international tour managers, and Chicago-based Jam Productions. The air was blue with smoke. Waitresses with trays of beer plunged into the crowd like human sacrifices. People walked around grinning as if they couldn't believe their good fortune.

On the stage, Jagger was, as he always is, the most electrifying of live performers, sometimes sliding shoulders with Richards, sometimes in a vocal duel with Jones, singing, prancing, jumping, marching on the crowd in anger, hectoring it like a revival preacher, glorying in his energy. As he does on larger stages, he worked the edges, walking as close to the crowd as he could get, touching hands, teasing, cheerleading.

By the time he got to "Jumpin' Jack Flash," he'd torn off his shirt, and you could see the same washboard ribs, the same skinny, muscular body you see in the old Stones concert films. You also noticed the timing: His choreography is sharp, violent and organic with the music. He uses his body as a conductor uses a baton, not just to lead the music but to lead the audience.

Downstairs at the Double Door, there's a private bar with pool tables and sofas, and that's where Michael Cohl, their Toronto-based promoter, and Arny Granat of Jam were sitting as the ceiling above them pounded like a drumhead. In the world of live entertainment, presenting the Rolling Stones in concert is the top of the line, and if I could multiply 400 by $7, the Double Door ticket price, they could no doubt multiply 50,000 by two concerts by $65, and add in the CDs, programs and T-shirts. They looked like the cats that ate the cream.

"Sometimes I'll look at a crowd and get a funny feeling," Cohl said. "There's so much energy there, and the potential for trouble. Other times, like tonight's crowd, it's real simple. They're just having a great time."

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