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Returning with a bang, the Stones rock, and roll back the years

FOXBOROUGH -- When Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards told a Boston audience in January that Boston ``was becoming a habit," he wasn't kidding. Maybe it's because Richards calls Connecticut home when he's not falling out of coconut trees in Fiji, but the Stones have certainly had a penchant for kicking off tours in this neck of the woods in recent years.

Even with a few stumbles along the way, some silly (that coconut incident), some serious (drummer Charlie Watts battling throat cancer; guitarist Ron Wood entering rehab), and some certainly to be expected (singer Mick Jagger being afflicted with laryngitis, likely due to a touring schedule that seems to get longer, rather than shorter, each year), the Stones have hit the Greater Boston market five times in roughly a year.

Somehow, though, they keep managing to surprise us -- not just with their improbable endurance and Jagger's staggering ability to defy the aging process, but by the band's stubborn determination to meet its own outsize expectations. Last night, launching the fall North American leg of the band's ``A Bigger Bang" tour, the Stones opened the two-plus hour show with the Eastern-tinged ``Paint It, Black" for the first time in its 44-year history.

The band received an affectionate welcome from the 44,000-strong crowd (Richards and Wood especially) and was in feisty, crash-bam-boom form, blaring gleefully and biting down hard on a chewy ``Live With Me" and ``Monkey Man," and an arch, but guitar-bleary ``Sway." The latter was stripped of the original's despondent poignancy perhaps, but it nevertheless boded well for a show that yielded the old Glimmer Twin gold of a classic Stones spectacle. And not just the crowd-pleasing entertainment juggernaut the band's long since become, but what they once, were too.

Now more than ever perhaps, the epic hoodoo nightmare ``Midnight Rambler" has become the Stones's showpiece and a window into the pre- stadium days, when they seemed a five-headed hydra of blues, lust , and theater: There was Mick as tomcat, the years dripping off him with every shake and snake of his hips, blowing dirty harmonica as Keith's and Ronnie's guitars circled him, wailing and rumbling with timeless dread and malevolence. Richards beamed and delivered a sweet-tempered ``You Got The Silver" before springing forward a decade with the raunchy ``Little T & A." ``Sweet Virginia," with Jagger on acoustic and harp and the band working out its lifelong country-blues jones, was a treat. It was moments like these that reminded you that no matter how much they change, or earn, or stumble, some things never change with the Stones, thank goodness.

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