“It’s all a bit embarrassing now” said several of my friends when I told them I was going to see The Rolling Stones in London. This appears a popular notion – mainly from people who have never fully witnessed the band live. The consummate music rebels from the sixties when it was all a little scary with drugs, devil worship and scandal, are now fully pensioned off and part of the popular society set with grade A celebrity status.
Yet underneath all that they still remain rebels, except now they rebel against getting old and dying out, the sinew of their musical muscles now stretched beyond any normal limitations, and yet they continue to outperform their younger peers with vigour and energy.
I saw what I thought would be the last Rolling Stones performance in England five years ago on July 13th in Hyde Park, and it was full of all the trademark hits plus a handful of surprises, Emotional Rescue being the main one, and secretly I’m hoping they throw in another B list track tonight especially having played Neighbours in Dublin on the opening tour night in the previous week.
How you pick a setlist from their back catalogue to please both the casual fan and the more die-hard Stonesian is a difficult conundrum, and similar to other tours they enlist a pre-show voting system for one of the tracks tonight. Sadly, my personal vote of Rocks Off didn’t make the final two, and instead it will be either Let’s Spend the Night Together or Under My Thumb coming later.
We’ve had the young pretender (45 yr old !!) on stage for a few songs and Liam Gallagher did his best to show his Rock ‘n’ Roll Star credentials, mirrored shades, spitting on the stage, shaking his maracas and pulling a few disgruntled angry faces – whilst playing mostly a selection of Oasis numbers. His singing is a little bit too nasal for my liking, he’s got some classic tunes and a big sign on the keyboards that says Rock’n’Roll, but he was always going to find it tough to compete against these legends, you can’t out Rock’n’Roll the Stones – they largely wrote the book.
However, it was a nice softer touch to dedicate Live Forever to those affected by the Manchester Arena bombing (the one year anniversary falling on the same day as this concert) and to have his ex-Oasis cohort Bonehead join him on stage. The Mancunian collective leave the stage to a fairly reasonable reaction from the audience.
It is 8:30pm on the dot and a skeletal looking drummer takes to his ever-decreasing kit. Charlie Watts is in the biggest rock’n’roll band on the planet and has the smallest Gretsch kit you’ve ever seen. Being the oldest can have its downside, but when you are all in your 70s, I doubt it really matters. “YOW” goes Mick Jagger as he struts out on to the stage, with Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards filing in faithfully behind. But it isn’t going to be Sympathy for the Devil kicking things off tonight in the same way it did in Dublin. No – instead after a “Will You Please Welcome Home The Rolling Stones” announcement, they go straight into a crowd pleasing Street Fighting Man and heat things up immediately.
Jagger seems to be everywhere, he has a runway that stretches to a third of the stadium and uses it several times during the set. When he isn’t on it, he is constantly moving, spinning around, hips swinging, mouth agape and stretching his arms out and flapping them like he’s trying to shake off his fingers.
You find yourself wondering exactly how long he is going to keep this going, but when It’s Only Rock’n’Roll is your second song, he’s got at least another 4 minutes of a intense workout that most 50 year olds would shirk at, never mind a 74 year old.
Tumblin’ Dice is next from my favourite album Exile on Main Street, it is a regular staple from their live set and has some nice backing vocals supplied by Sasha Allen. That’s the thing with the Stones live show, it might be called #NoFilter but you would be crazy to think it was just going to be the 4 of them on stage. This is a huge behemoth of a production, so long-time bass player Darryl Jones is also here, along with the brilliant Chuck Leavell on Keys, Bernard Fowler and Sasha on extra percussion and backing vocals, and some incredible sax playing by Karl Denson who has taken over from the legendary and sadly departed Bobby Keys.
However, the combined sound still feels raw and slightly unkempt, it is far from shambolic, but has enough edge to feel rough rather than a sharp and slick production. No better example of that when they dip into the Blues and play a version of Jimmy Reed’s Ride ‘Em on Down. Jagger showing that he still has enough lung power to play a mean harmonica solo.
This might have felt like a bit of a downer for the pure hit seeking fans, however, this is the basis of why they are together in the first place, and their last studio album Blue and Lonesome was exactly that. Ronnie Wood at times seems to be taking on more of the solos than Keith Richards tonight – well he is the youngest at only 70, he’s gurning at Mick and Keith making them laugh on stage.
This is a happy bunch of people, and yes, I’m sure we would all be smiling if we earned the kind of money they are getting for this tour, but there is still strong camaraderie evident, even after more than 50 years of playing together.
The results of the social media ballot are out on the screen, and it is Under My Thumb getting the most votes, “There’s a surprise” he quips and perhaps it was strategically placed to slower the pace a little. It’s a shame that won because next is Fool to Cry, and whilst it is nice to get our ‘rare’ track tonight, it is also a little slow and Jagger can’t really hit that falsetto anymore.
Thankfully the ballads are very short in supply tonight, You Can’t Always Get What You Want starts with Jagger on an acoustic guitar for the opening verse and it feels like everyone is singing back to him drowning out the chords, Chuck Leavell then picks up a cowbell to start Honky Tonk Women and if there was a roof here it wouldn’t be standing after that stomping tune. Shortly after Mick Jagger leaves the stage for the regular Keith Richards solo spot.
We all know he can’t really sing, but that doesn’t matter, our favourite guitarist-come-pirate is in fine form and looking as healthy as Keith Richards possibly can, the lines in his face showing a history of experiences like growth rings in a mighty oak. Keef gives us a version of the Steel Wheels track Slippin’ Away and quite a few take that opportunity to do just that – toilet and bar were calling. I’m sure we would all have preferred Happy or Little T&A (which will probably never be played again due to its lyrics) however, Jagger needs his ten minute oxygen break, so it’s the regulation two song solo spot before the big bangers come out.
The run in to the end of the set is a classic Stones collection of their biggest crowd pleasers. Starting with Sympathy for the Devil the fans were already providing the “Woo..Woooo” noises even before Jagger had been allowed to introduce himself. Dark satanic references were replaced by neon disco lights as Miss You funked up the Stadium – complete with some stunning bass runs from Darryl Jones.
Jagger was still dancing up and down that runway when he pulls out the harmonica again for Midnight Rambler, it remains a dirty seedy blues tune, backed by some great extended solo work from both Ronnie and Keith. Start Me Up has been their go to opening number for years, now reserved for the home run and an intro to Jumping Jack Flash which Keith seems to screw up the opening riff to, how long has he been playing that tune, only about 50 years!
Brown Sugar closed the big hits section and then the band return for a majestic Gimme Shelter with black and white protest imagery behind them and a magnificent personal solo vocal from Sasha Allen, screaming“Rape, Murder” in an ear piercing fashion, both her and Jagger duetted feverishly at the head of the stage runway.
Final song to end the night has to be Satisfaction and whilst you can largely predict about 75% of the set list it was all far from a safe plod through some old standards. They injected such energy, Jagger in particular, keeping these great rock’n’roll tunes alive for the generations that assembled in London tonight.
Fireworks signalled it was time to return home and the owl-like “Woo Woooo”calls continued into the night, accompanying us on the walk back to Stratford Tube Station. Tonight, was a music history lesson and a showcase of how to be a frontman for a band, on the strength of what I witnessed tonight, it wouldn’t surprise me if there is at least another 5 years of this to come. Surprisingly, there may still be tickets available for the remaining UK dates, they will be in the upper tiers of the Stadiums, but I would definitely snap one up now while you can – It’s only rock’n’roll but you’ll like it!!
Live Review & Photography by John Hayhurst of The Rolling Stones at London Stadium on 22nd May 2018