Event: Rolling Stones
Where: du Arena, Yas Island
When: Friday February 21
In the 50-plus year lifespan of The Rolling Stones, the seven months that passed between the band’s Middle Eastern debut in Abu Dhabi and their last appearance on stage in London’s Hyde Park, is fractional. But conceptually, that half-year is seismic – many thought the Stones’ historic outdoor gigs in London and Glastonbury were the perfect and fitting swansong for the most celebrated dinosaurs of rock n’ roll. But no – they raged on (‘52 & Counting’…?), into Asia and Australia on the clumsily dubbed 14 On Fire tour. Since those Hyde Park gigs both Mick and Keith have both turned 70 – can they really keep it up for another run?
On the basis of opening night at Yas Island’s du Arena – it’s a resounding yes. The Rolling Stones played an incredible two-hour set, brimming with bluster, groove, spirit, hits, history – most surprisingly – seeming enthusiasm. Mick Jagger repeatedly made attempts to drop Arabic into his between-song banter, told us with a grin how the band spent their four days in the capital (visits to Emirates Palace, Ferrari World and Falcon Hospital) and hilariously recited the UAE’s emirates (only Ajman excluded), cheekily building up to Dubai.
The seven month gap also may have given the band time to make peace with their largely-overlooked ’80s and ’90s output. Where Hyde Park’s setlist featured nothing younger than ‘Start Me Up’ (1981) – aside from token reunion single ‘Doom and Gloom’ – fans will be thrilled to hear about the inclusion of ‘You Got Me Rocking’ (1994) and ‘Slipping Away’ (1989) on the Abu Dhabi setlist.
Alongside a welcome revival of ‘Angie’, these were the only additions to the regular ’50 & Counting’ setlist – but what a set, and what songs. After groping for a groove with the crowd-pleasing one-two of ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘It’s Only Rock n’ Roll’, the riffs and choruses came thick and fast. Barroom burners ‘Tumbling Dice’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ had all their trademark testosterone-fuelled Jagger-swagger intact, ‘Paint It Black’ conjured the demonic drive needed to match its theatrical silliness, and with Jagger on guitar ‘Doom and Gloom’ provided a punky sense of bite and urgency. Only 1980 disco pastiche ‘Emotional Rescue’, notable for Jagger’s misconstrued falsetto, fell a bit flat.
After scaling the first-half’s musical mountain of memories it was Keith’s turn to take the mic. Bringing all his hardened hedonism and lovable sincerity to the spotlight – master of the mischievous, freak-of-nature rock n’ roll survivor – Richards’ reading of overlooked ballad ‘Slipping Away’ and trademark ‘Before They Make Me Run’ – were surely the highlight for many hardened fans. Then reclaimed guitarist Mick Taylor – oddly not introduced until a passing reference as he left the stage, and wearing a weary expression to boot – was wheeled out for jagged blues marathon ‘Midnight Rambler’, the three intertwined guitars, staccato stop-starts and sudden tempo changes magnificent in their ragged glory.
After this purists’ paradise came the final furlong which we’ll dub The Hits – a seven-song stream of timeless musical moments few in this international crowd wouldn’t recognise. Disco groover ‘Miss You’ gave way to ‘Gimme Shelter’, voted online as the UAE’s favourite Stones song, here capturing all the turbulence of the tumultuous time it was penned. This was only outdone by the warhorse that is ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ – The Stones’ most-played song, an ecstatic trance of rock n’ roll bliss which wrapped up the set…
Until the encore, Jagger returning to the stage amid the tribal drumming and prophetic theatre of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Then ‘Brown Sugar’ brought the set to a close in a simmering melting pot of Muscle Shoals soul, Chicago blues, Memphis rock n’ roll and British bite. But they didn’t play…
After a few anxious moments the band were back onstage for a second encore – another change for this tour – a local choir brought out for the anthemic ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, before – you guessed it – ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, one of rock’s most dumb, danceable and timeless guitar riffs vamped into an extended, ecstatic blues breakdown.
It’s always tempting to patronise aging rockers with phases like ‘they played like men half their age’, and the fact remains that 35 years ago the band sounded better than it does today. But where the rock was harder in the band’s ’70s heyday, late-Stones pay more attention to the roll. The slower pace brings out the best of Charlie Watts subtle around the beat flourishes, locked into a grooves with Darryl Jones (an infinitely funkier bassist than Bill Wyman), Keith’s guitar left space to swell and chime rather than stab and attack. Jagger’s vocals have clearly lost clarity with age, but he still trounces the stage throwing his body around like… well, a man half his age.
Yes, there were mistakes, negated notes and forgotten lyrics – Keith touchingly laughs at singing the line ‘am I losing my touch?’, after fluffing the line before – but The Stones’ were always lose and live, and all the more real and charming for it. It’s those uncharted moments – the ragged, raging outros of ‘Jack Flash’ and ‘Brown Sugar’, those chugging juggernauts of blissful improvised sound that threaten to fly off the rails at any moment, but skid into the station just behind schedule – when the band truly cooks. When it sounds, unmistakably, like The Rolling Stones.
The Middle Eastern debut of the world’s greatest – and oldest – rock band was a historic moment before Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie set foot on the stage. But the blistering, beautiful, blissful set they played did nothing to diminish the night’s legacy. But we just can’t help asking, when this tour wraps up on April 5 in Auckland, what next for The Rolling Stones?
By Rob Garratt