It was when Mick Jagger sang about venting his “frustration” at the “demonstration” in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” that the absurdity of the situation sank in. Frustration for Sir Mick nowadays is a rainy day in Mustique or reading about his “tiny todger” in Keith Richards’ memoir. Genuine rock-and-roll rebellion and Sunday’s show at the O2 Arena, where the “cheap” seats started at £100 and VIP ticket-holders spent more than £1,000 to stand at the front, are separated by an immense divide. How do the Rolling Stones get away with it?
The answer lay onstage, which was cleverly designed to resemble their logo of an open mouth with tongue lolling lasciviously outwards. Appetite explains the Stones’ endurance. No band has managed to incarnate desire and greed as seductively. The link between the sexual hysteria and violence of their early shows and tonight’s ruthlessly monetised spectacle boils down to an insatiable aspect of human nature – our appetite for more.
This was a 50th anniversary show (“50 Years and Counting” said signs emblazoned around the venue), the first of two gigs in London, with three more following in New York. It opened with a film showing celebrities gushing about the band, who proceeded to materialise from within the maw of the open-mouthed stage.
The first song was 1963’s Beatles-penned single “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which they launched straight into without a word of greeting, summoning the spirit of those long-ago days playing covers in dingy clubs. But the brash and thudding rendition conveyed a different impression – that of a semi-detached group of superstars who last played an arena show five years ago.
Even a band as fabled as the Stones need to be together to operate as a unit. The pleasure at this gig lay in watching Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and their regular touring partners gel together once again. Theirs was a watchful, exploratory performance, glancing at each other to check timings, re-acquainting themselves with their shared life as musicians.
“Gimme Shelter”, featuring a needless guest appearance from the R&B singer Mary J. Blige, was one of the stumbles. Blige and Jagger bellowed the chorus at each other while the rest of the band lurched through the song. Richards gave a rascally grin, alone in his amusement at the shambles.
The evening had an unrehearsed, Keef-ian stamp. The music was loud, sloppy and vibrant, as though taking the Richards-devised Exile on Main St as the definitive Stones sound. The guitarist, tendrils of grey hair sprouting from beneath a red bandana, played languidly edgy riffs in concert with his flashier foil Wood. A pair of sax players, including Richards’ crony Bobby Keys, added swampy smears of brass. Meanwhile Jagger was in astonishingly good voice, delivering “Paint It, Black” with a theatrical quaver and capering around the looped thrust stage with a svelte grace that belied his 69 years.
A pair of new songs, “One More Shot” and “Doom and Gloom”, made a perfunctory appearance. The rest of the set was a best-of compilation with the odd surprise. Jeff Beck joined them for “I’m Going Down”, Richards circling the interloper like a dog, the three guitarists creating a blues-rock wall of noise. Bill Wyman, introduced by a lordly Jagger as “one of our former members”, resumed his bass-playing duties on “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll” and “Honky Tonk Women”, before being dismissed with a curt “Thank you, Bill.”
Best of all was the arrival of Mick Taylor to play bluesy slide guitar on an elongated “Midnight Rambler”. The presence of the guitarist who played with the Stones in their ’69-’74 pomp seemed to trigger something in Jagger, who proceeded to attack “Brown Sugar” with wild gusto, before appearing in a black cloak for a lip-smacking version of “Sympathy for the Devil”.
A pulsating “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” brought the show to a close, the band firing on all cylinders. It was oddly apt that the venue’s curfew meant they couldn’t play the scheduled closer, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. It is the nature of desire to be unfulfilled. That’s why the Rolling Stones endure. They still have the appetite.