Imagine if your favourite bar band – the one you see swaggering and rocking at your local most Saturday nights – won some fabulous lottery. And with that money they could mount the most amazingly huge and perfectly produced show they could conceive. The venue would be a mega-stadium, the lights and stage production would be utterly state-of-the-art, the sound design would be perfect.
But still, right at the centre of all this hi-tech machinery and Olympian splendour would be your good old favourite bar band, rocking away in true pub style – ripping it up, flubbing the occasional chord, grinning away and still making some joyous rock and roll.
That was the phantasy that ran through my head watching The Rolling Stones at Allphones Arena mid last week. (I half-remember a hazy quote by Keith Richards about the Stones being the world’s biggest bar band, but I could be wrong.)
The thing about this particular bar band was that they had The Songs: songs that have set the template for all forms of rock and roll – brainy rock and desultory punk included. Everyone from Alice Cooper to The New York Dolls to The Black Crowes to The Clash – yes, even Elton John and David Bowie at times – seemed to be trying to write their Stones song at some stage.
And for a long while the Stones always kept a step ahead – the brilliant Pop of the ’60s, the filth and the fury of the ’70s (Exile on Main Street) – hell even the ’80s held some gems (“Start Me Up” and “One Hit to the Body”). But as their star waned, their live shows seemed to become more and more gigantic, more obesely over-produced and – for the deep music fan – a hollow spectacle with monstrous cartoon props dwarfing Mick, Keith and the band: maybe an apt metaphor for where the band were at.
At Allphones the stage was surprisingly bare – a huge hexagonal screen surrounded by some sharp and beautiful neon-tube-art, and a circular runway that ran out onto the audience and back again. There was not a Zeppelin-penis, inflatable King Kong or illuminated 5-story cobra in sight.
And the music was briskly tart and flab-free too. Opener “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” sounded lean and raw and had that perfect mix of grit and satin – Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts finding their sweet spot groove from the first riff. Their joy in that groove never let up – through “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)”, “Respectable” and the languid black and blues of Z”Tumbling Dice”.
Mick Jagger – still snake-hipped and electric at age 71 – reminded us that he wrote the book on rock frontmen. It is hard to think of any lead singer in a rock band that has not borrowed part of Jagger’s unique mix of overt sex, androgyny, self-parody and theatre-of-the-absurd. And he still has an arse like an apple.
Keith Richards – ever the blue moon to Jagger’s sun king – is the heart of the Stones. Artifice-free, he has created a style that is modern-outlaw: the gypsy, the pirate, the anti-authority bad boy. This is an enormous part of the Stones’ myth and attractiveness – but whatever, Richards is a music lover and instinctive musician. His three-tune vocal set was a surprising high point of the concert: the bruised country of “You Got The Silver”, the brittle riffing of “Before They Make Me Run” and his masterpiece, “Happy” were a delight of honesty and depth.
The rollicking roll of Richards’ mini-set put the stodgy train-wreck of “Midnight Rambler” into high relief. Mick Taylor, Stones lead guitarist during their early ’70s golden period, was brought out to hopefully reprise his jaw-dropping performance of the song preserved on 1970s live Get Yer Ya Yas Out. But it never took off – Taylor’s lines promised so much yet meandered and lost focus. Trying to “guitar-weave” with Richards and Ronnie Wood, Taylor fell flat. It was an illustration of how the dynamic within the band has changed – Keith and Ronnie were now a little gang, who didn’t look too keen on letting the new guy in.
By contrast, backing vocalist Lisa Fischer’s duetting with Jagger on the bone-chilling “Gimme Shelter” just kept going higher and higher. Working the circular runway out into the crowd, Fischer reprised Merry Clayton’s original 1969 recorded performance. Reprised? No, let’s say she owned it. And it seemed to thrill Mick Jagger as much as it did the rest of us.
The set-list of songs was all up and blazing – apart from a sweetly-drunken “Sweet Virginia”, it was all rockers: no “Angie”, no “Wild Horses”, no “Moonlight Mile”. “Start Me Up”, “Sympathy for The Devil” – driven by Chuck Leavell’s piano and with Jagger hoodoo-ing us all in a voodoo-man’s feather cape – and “Brown Sugar” finished the set, before a huge choir (and French horn soloist) opened the first encore of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
“Satisfaction” was, of course the closer. An eternal anthem of disaffection and teen-alienation, it might be the most perfect punk song ever written and resonates with everyone who has a brain in their head and a chip on their shoulder. And it always will.
Looking around at my fellow audience members – many of them looking well-nourished and pretty satisfied in their bulging Rolling Stones 14 On Fire Tour t-shirts – punching the air and yelling “I can’t get no… satisfaction”, I thought this should really be faintly ridiculous. But the joy of being part of this tribe, this club, this Rolling Stones gang, right here, right now, overrides all that over-thinking.
And the Stones – like all the best of rock and roll – has always celebrated and drawn us back to the right here, right now. You can see it in Keith Richards’ faintly simian grin, in the glow of Ronnie Wood’s fag-end and in the snap of Charlie Watt’s wrist as he gives us that delicious backbeat we have all come to hear.