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Rolling Stones play Agganis

Band rehearses for two nights at BU arena

Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood in the empty Agganis Arena. Photo courtesy of the Rolling Stones.

Keith Richards is pacing. It’s 9:30 p.m. on a hot September night and the Rolling Stones’ lead guitar player, wearing sunglasses, a black floor-length coat, and an oversized baseball-style cap, is pacing back and forth on an enormous black stage at one end of Agganis Arena. Richards stops at center stage, slips a quick look at drummer Charlie Watts, then bends slightly forward as an attendant rolls a guitar strap gently over his shoulder. He glances stage left, and a trombone, a trumpet, and a tenor sax erupt in a fiery harmonic riff. Richards spins on his heel, nods to keyboard player Chuck Leavell, then slowly aims his dark glasses toward the 6,500 empty seats of Agganis Arena. He grins ever so slyly, and the Rolling Stones let it go.

“Give me little drink, from your lovin cup
Just one drink, and I’ll fall down drunk.”

The chords, ripped wholly from the Memphis-style blues, and the words, sung with an over-the-top southern accent, cascade through the vast vacant space, while half a dozen technicians sitting at monstrous soundboards study patterns of tiny blinking lights.

Richards is pacing again, pacing and playing. It doesn’t matter that he knows the words to this song backwards and forwards. It doesn’t matter that he has been playing the same four chords of the song since 1972 — he wants to hear it one more time. In 48 hours, he will be playing those chords in front of tens of thousands of hard-core Stones fans as the band kicks off the North American leg of its Bigger Bang Tour at Gillette Stadium, and clearly Richards wants to make sure they get it right. And so a few bars into the refrain he halts his strumming and stops his pacing and quits his grinning, and abruptly the hall falls silent.

Richards paces. He nods toward his keyboard man. He smiles at the horns. He chats with the lead singer, standing in for a resting Mick Jagger. He turns to the 6,500 empty seats.

“Give me little drink, from your lovin cup
Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.”

For several hours on the nights of September 17 and 18, Agganis Arena became the personal space of the world’s greatest rock and roll band and its 50-odd crew members, who rolled up Commonwealth Avenue in four enormous trailer trucks. Peter Smokowski, associate vice president for administration, says he wasn’t surprised at the Stones’ last-minute decision to rent Agganis Arena to rehearse before their September 20 concert at Gillette Stadium. “Other bands have used the arena for rehearsals too,” he says. “In fact, just the week before we had Santana in there.”

Smokowski was pleased, he says, to see evidence that the arena has earned a reputation among rock bands as a great place to practice before a Boston area show. “The Agganis is now known for the quality and professionalism of its staff, and for their ability to meet the unique production needs of the artists,” he says. “We’re also known for our ability to move quickly. When you have all those factors working for you and you’re in the Boston market where bands are kicking off tours, we become a natural place for them to think about.”

Amy Brown, general manager of the arena, was thrilled to be able accommodate the most famous rock band in the world. Brown says the most rewarding part of the experience for her came not from hearing the Stones perform, but from hearing what the crew had to say about the arena. “They told us that they loved the layout of the place,” she says, “and they said all of the electric outlets were in exactly the right places, and a couple of them commented on how clean Agganis is.”

“That’s the kind of thing I love to hear,” she says. “I even had one person tell me it was so clean it was like going to church.”