Personal Faves: How I Spent My Rent Check On A Rolling Stones Concert

Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Hillary Hughes writes about dropping a load of money on the greatest living rock ‘n’ rollers, The Rolling Stones.


I had made the mistake of casually mentioning to my mother that I spent a month’s rent (literally) on a pair of tickets to watch The Rolling Stones perform at the Barclays Center, and she was completely shocked and appalled. “You’re irresponsible! I’m not gonna tell you how to spend your money, but Jesus, Hilary … they’re just so old. I wouldn’t have paid half that to see them twenty years ago let alone now.”

Mom wasn’t alone in thinking that. When The Rolling Stones announced the handful of select cities they’d visit on 50 and Counting…, the band’sfiftieth anniversary tour, their age (“But Keith Richards is probably gonna die soon!”) and the $100-$900 price range for seats were topics more avidly discussed than the fact that this rock band had made it through to the better half of a century together. My friends thought I was borderline institutional for entertaining the idea of wasting two hours and hundreds of dollars on The Rolling Stones, and so a volley of YouTube clips hit my inbox, a damning reel of highlights recorded from recent awards shows and other anniversary tours that displayed an exhausted-looking Richards and a flailing, shouting Mick Jagger in a most unfavorable light. Even my dad—the man responsible for my Rolling Stones fandom and the one whose glove compartment I lifted a tape of Tattoo You from at the age of ten—was taken aback by the fact that I was so determined to find tickets to the Brooklyn show of 50 and Counting… just to watch a band of senior rock musicians “who’ve seen better days” play through a predictable set list.

No one seemed to get why I was so hell-bent on seeing The Rolling Stones, so when the time to hit the “Confirm Reservation” button came, I had forgotten why I had decided to hand over my rent check to TicketMaster in exchange for the chance to see the greatest rock band in history play songs that mean more to me than even I understand—and I subsequently freaked the fuck out. I forgot about how, while driving back and forth between Brooklyn and Boston this fall, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed anchored my sanity on I-84, especially because “Call Me Maybe” and “Some Nights,” two of the most lyrically inept songs ever written, were also Clear Channel’s favorite singles to play and therefore unavoidable unless I dodged Connecticut’s airwaves throughout the course of the four-hour drive. I forgot that the first real conversation I had with my dad about music was about The Rolling Stones, one about his favorite song of theirs, “Bitch,” and how it was overshadowed by “Brown Sugar” on 1971’s Sticky Fingers. I forgot about how I’d told an ex-boyfriend that I wanted to walk down the aisle to “Happy” should we ever get married, and I forgot about how many times I opted to belt the chorus to “Gimme Shelter” into a hairbrush in front of a mirror as a teenager.

I more or less forgot about the fact that The Rolling Stones have provided the off-peak soundtrack to my life, despite the fact that I was born fourteen years after the release of Exile on Main St. I sought solace in the straightforward tenacity of their choruses instead of settling for the shitty, manufactured pop songs that my friends sang along with when they came on at the dive bar, and the musical inclinations of Jagger, Richards & Co. have set the standard for my taste as a listener, fan, and critic from the get-go.

I had forgotten all of this, and yet with one play of “Doom and Gloom,” the first single from their newly released greatest hits collection, I came to. I clicked “Confirm” and that was that. I was going to see The Rolling Stones, and I was going because I needed to see them—to hear the steady build of “Gimme Shelter,” to groan when “Miss You” made an appearance, to jump up and down like a maniac during “Get Off Of My Cloud”—and this was the first time I’ve ever felt so compelled to declare my love for a band so openly before, despite the fact that I knew that I was potentially setting myself up for the kind of epic disappointment that can only occur when your expectations of meeting your idol fall short.

Thankfully, Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie eviscerated every skeptic thought in the house when they took the stage at the Barclays Center for the big event on December 8. Though 50 and Counting… could’ve been the safe and tired victory lap of a final tour, the scene that unfolded was that of a jovial reunion, one where Ronnie Wood galloped across the stage without hitting a wrong note while Richards took to his solos with the effortless dexterity of a person who has cradled the neck of a guitar in his hands more frequently than he hasn’t over the course of the past fifty years. Jagger’s bellow reached the highest and lowest recesses of his range, and though his gait and the topography of his face tell the truth about his age, the flamboyant frontman ran at the crowd with an identical fervor to that of himself thirty years prior. (Or so I’m told, anyway). Richards and Wood sauntered back to the drum kit and turned and faced the arena before them in unison, and as Jagger shimmied, clapped and convulsed while the room erupted as the hits flew into the ether, I stood there slack-jawed thinking about how impossible it was for them to be so good when time, logic and the basic truths of the human form seemed to be working against them.

The show may not have been perfect—my prediction of a Beyoncé cameo during “Gimme Shelter” disintegrated when Mary J. Blige showed up, and “Midnight Rambler,” well, rambled—but to say that I got what I paid for would be an immense understatement. 2012, for me, was the year when Autotune became a superficial stylistic choice as opposed to a performance crutch, where The Black Keys farmed out the track list of El Camino to any studio that wanted to opt it for a movie trailer and a song like “Call Me Maybe” earned more accolades for its saccharine hooks than any other single on the charts. It was also the year of The Rolling Stones, in that the rock icons showed the world, and me, that a good song is an immortal thing that can only grow stronger with age—and that a fiftieth anniversary tour isn’t to be met with the same expectations of a retirement party. 

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Azure Ray Return From an Alternate Universe

Azure Ray is, more or less, a pair of landlocked sirens who shed their songwriting scales every few years for the sake of reinvention. When they started making music together in high school, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor were writing songs of an uplifting, poppier ilk, as demonstrated by their self-titled debut from over a decade ago. Since then, they’ve toyed with various approaches and audio flavors, fleshing out their poetic whispers as they experiment with synths, discordant harmonies, and the gentle thuds of a drum machine.

With As Above So Below, which drops on Saddle Creek September 4, Orenda and Maria brought some friends aboard to make what they call “Azure Ray in an alternate universe” a reality: Andy LeMaster produced their previous album, Drawing Down the Moon (as well as numerous releases from Bright Eyes, the Dirty Truckers and R.E.M), and returned to the studio for Below, along with Todd Fink, Orenda’s husband and member of Omaha’s indie deity The Faint. We spoke with Orenda and Maria about changing dynamics, new beginnings for the band, and writing lullabies as they prepped for their tour in Birmingham, Alabama.

I’m intrigued by what you said about At Above So Below revealing a new side to Azure Ray, one from an “alternate universe.” Now that the record’s about to be released, does it still sound that way to you?
Orenda Fink: We’ve dabbled in this kind of sound before, but we’ve never gone full out in this direction. [Below] is still Azure Ray because it’s our voice and our harmonies. There’s still a lot of Azure Ray in there, but the record does feel like a new universe to me.

How is Below going to work into your live set, with all its electronic components? Are you approaching touring differently this time around?
Maria Taylor: Ask us in a week! [laughs]
OF: We don’t really know—it’s going to be a lot of trial and error, figuring out how to make this work live. Andy is coming with us and he’s going to help us with the electronic elements, and Heather McIntosh will be joining us on cello as well, which we’re really excited about. Also, Maria’s 3-month-old baby and mother are coming, and that’s going to be totally new for us! [laughs]

Congrats Maria, by the way! You were pregnant while you were recording this, weren’t you?
MT: Yeah, I was 8 months pregnant.

How’d that go?!
MT: It was actually hard for me to sing, because my baby was so big he was pressing on my diaphragm. I couldn’t hit notes, so it was really challenging. It was something I’ve never really had to worry about. I had to sing the songs so many times in order to get the notes!

There’s always pressure when you’re recording, but to have literal pressure due to a baby leaning up against your insides—I mean, that’s nuts.
MT: It was crazy! I wonder if he can recognize any of it when I play. They say you can hear when you’re in the womb, and we were definitely listening to the play-backs really loud when he was fully developed, so I always wonder if he’ll recognize the songs when we play them now. Orenda and Todd and my boyfriend and I would put headphones on my belly and play The Faint’s Wet from Birth. We had a rave inside there.

You lived together throughout the recording of Below. Have you done that before with previous records, or was this the first time you were under the same roof?
MT: Back in the day when we started, we lived together for many records. How many, ‘Renda? At least the first three Azure Ray records—
OF: Four. So, this is like old times.

What’s been the most drastic change for you as a songwriting team with Below?
MT: You know, we were just talking about this. It’s funny how we’ve been sisters and best friends since we were young, and we just have the kind of relationship that no matter how many years you take off or how many years you spend apart, when we get back together, it’s just the same as it was when we were 15. Nothing felt that different; it just kind of felt familiar and comfortable and fun.

So, nothing’s changed about your creative process? You’re still writing the same?
MT: Yeah.
OF: Well, mostly, we write separately. I think it helps, too, because we are so close. When we’re in writing mode, we’re convinced we’re in the same place. We write separately, and then we bring the songs to each other and play them, or add harmonies or any kind of little idea or part. Then we collect our songs when we feel ready, and kind of decide which ones fit together to make a record.

What’s next after Below?
MT: Right now, we’re just putting all our focus on putting on the tour and then touring. After that, I’m going to be working on a project with Andy that we’ve been working on for three years now, so hopefully we’re going to finish it.
OF: I’m working on a DJ project with Kevin (Barnes, of Montreal)’s wife—and that’s coming out in October. Maria and I were talking about doing a lullaby project from Azure Ray. We thought we should make it an annual thing where she and her husband come here for the month, and we work on music, and then put out a record. So hopefully we’ll be able to do that again next year.

What did you take away from the collaborations on Below that you can apply to the future pursuits of Azure Ray?
MT: Well, I think that we all collectively learned that Todd and Andy work really well together. It was their first post-production job together, and you never know when you go in how that’s going to work. Sometimes it’s hard for a husband and wife to work together, and Orenda and Todd did great, and I really enjoyed it, too. We didn’t know going into it, but there was a lot of chemistry.

You’ve been friends for years, and now one of your husbands has worked with you together in a professional capacity. What’s the secret, when it comes to making a relationship—professional or otherwise—work?
MT: You know, I think the answer to that is keeping your ego in check, and I think that’s why lots of people can’t work with their significant others or their friends—the ego rears its ugly head. We’ve really just learned to not be that way, you know? We respect each other. Even when we have different opinions, we hear each other out. We set our egos aside for the greater good of the experience and the outcome of the record.
OF: It probably helps that when we met in high school, it was basically through music. That was the first thing we ever did together. So in our way, our friendship was formed symbiotically with a working relationship. They’re so intertwined that it seems like a big part of the friendship.

One of your lyrics from the record is “You can’t change nature’s wishes.” I’d say that line applies here, just because it seems as though your musical partnership and your friendship have both grown so organically alongside each other.
MT: I love that. That’s one of Orenda’s lyrics, and I think it’s my favorite one on the record. That part of the song gives me chills all the time, and when you said it I got chills again!