Artillery Row On Music

Rolling back into town

The world’s greatest band return to Liverpool — do they still have it?

The Rolling Stones made a triumphant return for their first UK concert since the death of drummer Charlie Watts. The third date of their sixtieth anniversary European tour was the first time they had played Liverpool since 1971, when they debuted songs from their forthcoming Sticky Fingers album including “Brown Sugar”, the only track to challenge “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as their signature hit. It has been retired for the post-Me-Too#/Black Lives Matter landscape in which rocking references to slavery and sexuality could do permanent damage to the b(r)and. It was otherwise business as usual, the septuagenarian veterans firing on all-cylinders. Following a video tribute to Watts, Keith Richard’s iconic riff to “Street Fighting Man” brought the audience to its feet with Jagger bursting onto the Anfield stage with youthful abandon and a pitch-perfect vocal delivery.

Compared to other dates, ticket sales for Liverpool were sluggish, audiences not so pre-disposed as elsewhere in Europe to shell out £90+ to see the old rivals to local lads The Beatles in their backyard. Scouse accents predominated in bars around the stadium (where a pint cost a very reasonable £3), and the most rousing impromptu rendition during the encore break of “You´ll Never Walk Alone” came from the nosebleeds. In the diamond pit by the stage, the demographic was more cosmopolitan. Travelling fans informed me the face-value ticket price of £325 to be here was good value in relation to previous tours and other cities.  

At the barrier, spectators were respectful but confused by opening band, Liverpudlian legends Echo and the Bunnymen, draped in black in daylight (not quite as ridiculous as watching the Sisters do a daytime set at a summer festival in Portugal, but close). Lead singer Ian McCulloch didn’t help matters by repeatedly stating in deadpan fashion that he was so excited to watch the greatest rocknroll band at Anfield. Cryptic references to Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby” in a rambling account of his first trip to the sacred grounds as a child were hardly a sure-fire way of getting a stadium on-side. Referring to set-closer “The Killing Moon” as the greatest song ever recorded was, I presume, sardonic, although the 1980s track stood the test of time. But nobody goes to the Stones to watch the support act.

There was elsewhere a surprising degree of genuine menace

A thrilling frontman, Jagger moves like an athlete and a ballerina, covering kilometres in the space of any given evening. Belying their debauched legacy, the Stones know how to pace themselves, leaving five days between concerts and travelling in a manner befitting men of wealth and taste. In Madrid, Ronnie Wood proudly showed images on his mobile of his pastiche of “Guernica” to the President of the Board of Trustees of the Reina Sofia Modern Art Museum, whilst Jagger courted controversy by posting an image of himself in front of Picasso’s masterpiece on Twitter when photography is strictly prohibited. His pre-concert entertainment in Liverpool was similarly iconic, as he posted a photo of himself in front of the statue dedicated to Cilla Black (“closer than I ever got in real life” he joked on-stage). 

Amidst the elaborate light and stage designs the Stones pioneered on the world’s biggest stages, it is difficult to go off-script (Jagger gave exactly the same call-out to those who had travelled to Anfield from Leeds, to those from Liverpool who had done the journey in reverse to watch them in Roundhay Park in 1982). Song selections are not set in stone, but there is limited room for manoeuvre. In Madrid, 1960s banger “Out of Time” made its live debut and might be here to stay. The mass singalongs it prompts makes one wonder why it had never been played before, and how many other gems are waiting to be unearthed. There is variety in the two numbers for which Keith Richards takes the microphone (while Jagger has a much-deserved mid-set breather), whilst two slots near the beginning of the two hour nineteen-song set-list change on a nightly basis. Liverpool got the punchy proto-punk of “Get off My Cloud” and (after weighing up the possibility of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”) “I Wanna be Your Man”, the Lennon-McCartney composition the Stones released as their second single in 1964. 

Any suspicions that the retirement of “Brown Sugar” (which, truth be told, has not sounded so good since the death of saxophonist Bobby Keys in 2014) alongside the similarly high-octane “It’s Only RockNRoll (But I Like It)” might be a concession to age, were put to rest with the knockout punches of “Jumping Jack Flash” and set-closer “Satisfaction”, which continue to be played at breakneck speed. Unlike, say, the now vocally challenged Jon Bon Jovi, a mere pup at sixty, there were few tricks to mask physical decline through key-changes or downsizing the stage size. Whilst Richards originally grew his hair long to disguise his large stick-out ears, an educated guess might suggest that the sudden appearance of headwear on every night of this tour has been necessitated by hair-loss. The legendary guitarist kept off the ramp that led into the crowd, and remained fairly static throughout, whilst Wood is not as gamine as he once was.

New drummer Steve Jordan has big boots to fill

As well as showcasing Beverley Hills-level dental surgery, the grins of the old muckers on the giant screens at the rear and sides of the stage remain infectious.  Their interlocking guitar playing has not been so polished since the 19941995 “Voodoo Lounge” tour on which long-term bassist Darryl Jones replaced founding member Bill Wyman. New drummer Steve Jordan has big boots to fill, but acquits himself with aplomb knowing, like Watts, that strategic minimalism is central to their appeal. The cool swagger of “Tumbling Dice” encapsulates what imitators so often forget, that the roll is as important as the rock to their signature sound. “Miss You” did lose some rhythmical dynamism, but the late 1970s incursion into disco proves that, to this day, nobody has the moves like Jagger.

One suspects the decibel-level for their upcoming Hyde Park concerts will be reined in so as to keep the residents of Mayfair happy, but the power and roughness of the guitar riffs (Mötorhead are one of the few rock bands Richards gives the time of day) cut through the Liverpool night with aggression and volume intact. “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Paint it Black” verged on macabre cabaret, but there was elsewhere a surprising degree of genuine menace for a performance by such seasoned pros. First encore “Gimme Shelter” (whose studio recording reaches such a level of perfection that the Stones shied away from playing it for many years) remains ominous as does “Midnight Rambler”, forever associated with Altamont where the band played the song about the serial killer as members of the Hells Angels security team killed Meredith Hunter, a young black man in front of the stage in 1969.  

The most compelling moral argument against Their Satanic Majesties is the vicarious  ruthlessness with which they have watched mere mortals fall as they flirt with danger and the counter-culture, whilst keeping a close watch on the bottom dollar. If rocknroll was initially defined by youthful rebellion, performers working in the genre are now paradoxically far less likely to retire when past their performance peak than classical musicians. Whilst often criticised for exponentially rising ticket prices, where the Stones lead, others follow. The cost of watching Jagger and Co. is no longer substantially higher than for lesser heritage acts, many of whom can no longer deliver the goods. In an age when Kiss have rumbled using backing tracks or Aerosmith pull Vegas residencies as lead-singer Steven Tyler re-enters rehab, the Stones remain in a league of their own. Many spectators will see their upcoming London shows as one last chance to see the world’s greatest rocknroll band live. This is not the sole or even the most important reason to invest in a ticket. On their current imperial form, all bets are off about what their future might hold. 

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