One of the biggest news stories to break in 2016 was the normalization of US-Cuban relations with President Obama’s first visit to the country since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. It quickly became the “it” destination for travelers as the Cuban populus welcomed American visitors for the first time in decades.
Cuba also hosted its first concert since Fidel Castro banned rock music in 1961. The band du jour: the Rolling Stones, of course. Now, that historic show is available for all to see on Havana Moon, a new DVD/album from Eagle Rock Entertainment.
When a group as documented as the Rolling Stones puts out a concert video, it lives and dies on one thing: crowd reaction. Multimedia displays are nice. Musicianship is vital. But a big, loud crowd is what makes it memorable — and this concert had one hell of a crowd.
The claimed attendance was 1.2 million, which by my math is just a shade above 10% of the Cuban population, and based on the aerial shots, I believe it. The crowd gets a lot of screen time, and they run the gamut of age, from the elderly who have waited their entire lives for this moment and to young guys who may be legacy fans. They’re among the most passionate fans I’ve ever seen either in a concert video or at a concert in person – they cheer, applaud, yell, dance, and cry, all in almost religious reverence.
Throughout, each of the Stones regulars gets a chance to show off his personality a bit. Mick Jagger attempts to speak to the crowd in his best high-school Spanish — or maybe it’s just standard Mick Jagger gibberish, who knows really — and it gets a rise out of the crowd. Keith Richards is as studious as ever, even though — and I cannot stress this enough — human eyes were never meant to see him in high definition. Ronnie Wood is remarkably nimble and energetic for someone his age, and we get a good look at how much he pulls his weight as a guitarist. Charlie Watts is stoic, preserving his energy and running off of decades of muscle memory.
The concert consists almost entirely of their greatest hits. It’s not particularly adventurous or new in that regard — compared to Billy Joel, who has taken to playing deeper cuts at his Madison Square Garden residency to keep things fresh — but given that it’s their first concert in Cuba in the history of ever, it’s understandable that they’d want to get the big ones out.
Besides the concert, the video begins with the Stones narrating how they set up the concert in Cuba, and why it was difficult for them or any rock act to put on a show there for years.
The concert and its accompanying video packages give Charlie Watts the respect he deserves, and it’s long overdue. Drummers, in general, are underappreciated, but Watts has been perhaps the most consistent member of the Stones, and he never seems to get his due. Here, the band spends a fair amount of time praising him, and the Cuban crowd chants his name after his introduction.
As passionate at the concert is, the companion CD feels sterile by comparison. Live albums in general are a tricky beast, because the appeal of a concert is largely visual and they risk becoming little more than live, greatest-hits albums. For the most part, that’s exactly what happens here. The audio quality is fantastic, however, most likely coming right off the soundboard in Havana.
The band is open about the fact that they don’t know if and how this will be remembered, which is good — there’s honesty in that. There’s no question this particular show will at least be remembered for its historical importance, but the it was good enough that it may well be remembered for the spectacle of concert and the passion of the crowd.
If nothing else, Fidel Castro lived long enough to see his rock ‘n’ roll ban crumble before his eyes, with the Rolling Stones slamming that final nail into the proverbial coffin. Maybe his literal one, too. I wouldn’t put it past Keith.
Get your copy of the Rolling Stones’ Havana Moon via Amazon.