Rolling Stones review – satisfaction guaranteed from rock’s old stagers

London Stadium
They’re showing signs of age – as are some of their attitudes – but the Stones remain capable of electrifying a vast venue with their loose, strutting blues

We could be in a big venue anywhere in the world. Fans wearing Rolling Stones merchandise converse in various tongues. The bars speak the international language of weak lager.

You know you are in a former Olympic venue in a recently reinvented bit of London, however, because you can just spy the top curve of Anish Kapoor’s audacious sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, peeking out above the rim of West Ham’s stadium. It looks like a big fat red lip – inadvertently echoing the unapologetic leer of the Rolling Stones’ logo, reproduced repeatedly tonight on the backs of fans and on the giant screens behind the stage.

“It’s nice to be back in Londuuuuhn,” confirms Mick Jagger, with just the right level of offhand, proprietorial camp at the start of a summer of British fixtures. Later, Jagger will talk about this venue not being far from a place he remembers as “Dalston Baths” – it’s either Leyton Baths, where the Stones played in 1963, or Dalston’s Chez Don club (same era); places not that far away spatially, but a foreign country, conceptually.

As the ley lines run, we’re not all that far from Sidcup either, where a fresh-faced Keith Richards was studying at art college when he bumped into his former schoolmate Jagger on a train platform and they bonded over some vinyl. Much as things often aren’t what they used to be, especially in London, that art college is now a Morrison’s. Leyton Baths is a Tesco. The stadium itself displaced a mountain of disused fridges.

Everything feels so spectacularly unmoored these days. But some things are more impervious to the ravages of time and the disruptiveness of recent history than geography or architecture. As much as is humanly possible, the Rolling Stones are exactly what they used to be – scrawny Englishmen with a thing for the blues, capable of reproducing the foundation documents of rock music with guts and flair. You’d go see Bach if he were alive: this is the white guy guitar band equivalent.

Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards trade prangs at the London Stadium.
‘Fretting as well as strutting’: Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards trade prangs at the London Stadium. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

There are times tonight, though, where this Stones gig can feel like a museum piece whose exhibits might require a little more curation, given modern sensibilities. Some of these songs have the air of semi-naked native mannequins posed to look awed at overdressed colonialists; acceptable at the time, perhaps, but questionable now. A lairy and louche Midnight Rambler is the extended showpiece of tonight’s set. Slowing down, speeding up, the band work their way through some call-and-response into an magnificently abstract lull, where Mick Jagger twitches his way backwards down the catwalk, the anchoring keyboards of Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford are muted and Ron Wood and Keith Richards are not playing so much as issuing prangs of guitar – an interlude that feels unscripted and alive. It’s the best advert for the Stones as a working band, that rolling, itinerant carnival of cutting loose.

If the past is another country, however, where they do things differently, nowhere is the lacuna between then and now more noticeable than on Rolling Stones songs about rapist murderers, a slaver’s penchant for young African girls (Brown Sugar), and keeping women subservient (Under My Thumb, a fan selection, in which Jagger preens over what nowadays we might call coercive control). That great extended blues, Midnight Rambler, celebrates a rapist as a kind of outlaw, wreaking countercultural vengeance on the smug within their “marble halls”.

If a modern lens exposes some unsightly blemishes, the edifice that is the Stones certainly seems bulletproof. Charlie Watts’s profile might have grown a little more hawk-like since London last saw him in 2013, but he gazes down upon the complicated business of rock’n’roll with a jazz drummer’s hauteur in a pressed blue linen shirt. He dons headphones for a couple of tracks – the awesomely slinky disco of Miss You probably operates to a click track – but otherwise remains largely unmoved.

Wood (“the Hogarth of Hounslow”, as Jagger introduces him) and Richards spend the first couple of songs looking worried, accentuating the topography of their crevassed faces. It’s a nice touch, that these gurning multimillionaires seem to care enough to frown their way through Street Fighting Man and It’s Only Rock’n’Roll, fretting as well as strutting.

Throughout, Jagger is nothing short of superhuman, his voice deserving of a monument of some kind. An entire generation is losing theirs: Dylan’s reduced to a parched wheeze, Neil Young’s more wilfully inconstant than ever, Paul McCartney not quite hitting the high notes, and Paul Simon embarking on a farewell tour while the going’s good. Jagger’s yowl is as elastic as Lycra and as powerful as it needs to  be to boom out across the stadium (and bounce back disconcertingly: this venue was not built for sound). As toned as a racing whippet, he can still launch into his trademark series of signature spasms, like James Brown and Tina Turner doing the waggle dance in a blender.

Jagger in action at London Stadium. Photographs by Antonio Olmos for the Observer
Photographs by Antonio Olmos for the Observer Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Constancy being a Stones byword, it’s the hits tonight. Variety comes in the form of a blues cover, from their recent Blue and Lonesome album (Ride ’Em on Down), and two unnecessary solo compositions by Keith Richards. These totally undermine his piratical persona by revealing a frail singing voice and a deep seam of sentimentality.

Some of these hits feel rote and some still capable of electrifying frissons. One curveball – Fool to Cry, a smooth, soulful cut from 1976 – gets its unexpectedly twinkly debut in the 21st century; the Stones haven’t played it live since 1999. The introductory notes of Paint It Black – Richards, plus a sitar line played through one of the keyboards, at a guess – usher in an orientalist masterpiece that mounts to an almost military flourish; the fact that Jagger hums significant passages of melody remains seductively quirky.

As the guitarists play themselves in, complementing each other – Richards on noodly rhythm guitar, Wood on washes of lead – the ravines give way to expensive dentistry as the two take up their roles as the grinning naughty schoolboys of the piece.

By (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, the final song of the encore, both Wood and Richards are up to actual mischief. Playing fast and loose with their parts, they crease up as they actively troll Jagger, who is miles away down the catwalk and dancing to the only thing he is left with: the constant, resilient bounce of Darryl Jones’s bass line.

Watch the video for Ride Em On Down.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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