They've a combined age of...aw, who cares? The Rolling Stones mean more than a number - they're living legends of rock and roll, who've never let the years wither them or their spirits. Indeed, capturing the entire o2 Arena in the grip of Stones mania to celebrate their fiftieth year of mayhem, Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie and the team last night proved themselves forever young and eternally amazing.
Against a backdrop of giant red lips, on a stage that stretched out in a loop like an extended tongue (around a small section of the crowd who’d sold their firstborns to be there), the Stones embarked on a two-and-a-half hour set that journeyed through their entire career, included greatest hits, special guests, reunions, and one live debut.
Despite the mouth design, opening song 'I Wanna Be Your Man', originally released in 1963, presented just six people on stage (the core quartet, plus pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Darryl Jones), which felt somewhat intimate. It suggested an appreciation for the band's disheveled roots; it was loud, incisive and pierced with stinging guitars. It launched an evening that didn't need to rely on bells, whistles or inflatable phalluses to keep our attention. Just the songs themselves.
Mick Jagger, resplendent in a dazzling silver coat with matching tie and hat, made reference to the event's bloated prices, asking those sat stage right after second song 'Get Off My Cloud', "Is everyone alright in the cheap seats?" Before cheekily adding, "Yeah, well the problem is there aren't any!" One does presume that Sir Jagger would be the one who calls the shots on such costs, but it's pointless to complain when people buy them regardless. There were people who'd travelled the globe to be here tonight, to whom money was no object and the thought of missing what might be the Stones' last ever gigs were out of the question.
"What a year for celebrating," Jagger later told the crowd. "There was the Queen's jubilee," he remembered. "We didn't do that. Then there was the Olympics. We didn't do that either." No, The Rolling Stones held out over the summer for their own special celebration - a more private do, which afforded them a longer, more exhaustive reflection - and we were all invited.
Mary J Blige was the first surprise guest, lending her impressive lungs to 'Gimme Shelter', followed shortly after by guitar supremo Jeff Beck on 'Going Down'. The former was powerful and suitably aggressive in the song's haunting chorus, but the latter was let down by the song's lightweight appeal. Guitar solos are indulgent at the best of times, but it helps if there's a hook. Nevertheless, the three axe grinders - Beck, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards - each took a searing turn in the spotlight with their six-string, with Keith's comparably subdued effort given the loudest applause.
Continuing his tongue-in-cheek taunting of the crowd, at one point Jagger teased: "Now for a special treat we're gonna do the whole of 'Satanic Majesties'," referencing their cult 1967 psychedelic album, which is notoriously boycotted by Jagger, who's not a fan. It would have been incredible, actually, though almost impossible without the diverse and exotic instrumentation added by the only ex-Stone who couldn't be here tonight - Brian Jones died in 1969.
After the first ever live performance of new song 'One More Shot' and recent single 'Doom And Gloom', the dour-faced Bill Wyman, who vacated the Stones' bassist role in 1989, rejoined the party with his old friends for two songs - he anthemic yet slightly silly 'It's Only Rock And Roll', and the impressive strut of 'Honky Tonk Women'.
As Jagger took a moment between songs to introduce the band, a small cloud of smoke could be seen emanating from behind the amps. Clearly Ronnie and Keith were using the opportunity to flaunt the venue's smoking ban. The last name to be called, Keith extinguished his fag, moved to the front of the stage to receive his adulation ("Good to see you all," he says, adding: "Good to see anybody!"), and proceeded to drive the group through two songs on lead vocals - ‘Before They Make Me Run' and 'Happy'.
The return of ex-guitarist Mick Taylor - whose exit from the band in 1974 paved the way for Wood - proved the highlight of the whole gig. Always their best guitarist, and the player who contributed to the Stones' peak era of 1969 to 1972, his effortless weaving of 'Midnight Rambler' alongside Ronnie and Keith injected the song with an authentic bite of its original, and every bit as good as the scathing 'Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out' live 1969 version.
Four deft punches later, and 'Sympathy For The Devil' rounds off the main event - Jagger writhing in a black fur cloak, still demonic after all these years. The encores are fabulous - 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' is epic, with the addition of the London Youth Choir, and 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' is brutal.
A near-faultless night, then. Sure, I would have loved the responsibility of choosing the setlist, and maybe a bit of young blood on the stage would have been nice, but we came to see The Rolling Stones immerse themselves in their own legacy, and that's exactly what we got. "It took us fifty years to get from Dagenham to Greenwich," Jagger joked at one point, but really their journey has been glorious. If this marks the end of it, so be it, but if tonight's proven anything, it's that these songs are going to live forever. See? Some things do get better with age!
Set List:'I Wanna Be Your Man'
'Get Off My Cloud'
'It's All Over Now'
'Paint It Black'
'Gimme Shelter' (with Mary J Blige)
'All Down The Line'
'Going Down' (with Jeff Beck)
'Out Of Control'
'One More Shot'
'Doom And Gloom'
'It's Only Rock And Roll' (with Bill Wyman)
'Honky Tonk Women' (with Bill Wyman)
'Before They Make Me Run'
'Midnight Rambler' (with Mick Taylor)
'Start Me Up'
'Sympathy For The Devil'
'You Can't Always Get What You Want'
'Jumpin' Jack Flash'
Words by Simon Harper