It’s over thirty years since the gags first started. They were “The Strolling Bones”, rock grandads who hadn’t taken the hint offered to them by punk, hip-hop and rave to knock it on the head. “He’s not still alive is he?” people would ask of Keith Richards then, as they do now. They were barely out of their forties, but the prospect of rock stars carrying on past pensionable age seemed ridiculous. When they played here on the Bridges To Babylon tour in 1999, it was quite legitimate to ask whether this may be The Last Time. Now, U2 are the rock giants it’s de rigeur to wish retirement on, even Weller’s 60, and somehow Keith is still alive. The Strolling Bones walk among us again.
In support is a man whose prime source of income they greedily got their sticky fingers on via the law courts. Is Richard Ashcroft still working off the royalty back payments, or is this profile-boosting support slot an olive branch from Jagger/Richards for taking 100% of the credits for Bittersweet Symphony?
Either way, no bitter(sweet)ness is showing on the former Verve man, who arrives wearing your mum’s sparkly party jacket over a Stones tongue logo t-shirt, looking as unaged in twenty years as the headliners. He’s easy to tar with the Dadrock brush, but this is a very playable hand of songs for a stadium gig – chunky chords and simple choruses that everyone knows.
Not surprisingly he keeps it crowd-pleasing, with nothing from the wild, Mad Richard days. Probably a smart move in the circumstances, but an All In The Mind or This Is Music would’ve really put the cat among the pigeons for those looking for more bite.
He opens with the recent-ish Hold On, then takes it down with Sonnet. It feels like a while before the crowd fully warm to him. Break The Night With Colour is a sweet thing with its late Beatles ballad keyboard line, but even that feels like it’s not fully connecting. Luckily, there’s a trio of big guns waiting in the wings…
For all their melancholy, The Verve always had a triumphalism about them and these three Urban Hymns cuts were born for arms-aloft stadium singalong. Lucky Man is first in line, before Ashcroft bravely belts out a 90% acoustic solo The Drugs Don’t Work. It takes a while to register that this is just man and guitar, such is the power it holds over the stadium. The band are only brought back in for a climactic outro.
And then the biggie. You can still hear the swaggering Northern defiance in it, this song that took a Wigan lad to the top of the world. “Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money, then you die,” – hardly profound, but passionately and desperately felt at the time of writing no doubt, and by the way he delivers it here, felt still. It’s a line that still applies to most people’s lives, yet in its pre-social media, pre-identity politics, pre-Brexit simplicity, it’s strangely alien, an old friend returning from 20 years living abroad to find everything’s changed round here. By God, the 90s feels a long way away, spiritually as well as temporally.
Our headliners, of course, are beyond consideration of what era they belong to. These pantomime dames with their melty wax faces are like her Maj – an institution whose pre-eminence predates most of our lifetimes. The Rolling Stones are British rock ‘n’ roll in three words.
There is something uncanny about being able to see and stare sixty years of cultural history in the eye like this. It’s as if you could still buy a ticket to Dickens doing a book reading or Charlie Chaplin doing a stage tour. They’re there in front of you, but it really oughtn’t to be possible.
Jagger is nature-defying. He totters, where he once might have run, across the stage, but other than that age cannot wither him. Everything’s there – the snake hips, the gurning, the spindly arms. No BMI issues here. When the big screen catches his spotlit outline from the back, singing out to the crowd, he’s not in his 70s, but you could easily be in the 70s. That Jagger pose and silhouette is unchanged.
The others are similarly well-preserved. Charlie Watts taps away eeyorishly, ever the gentleman jazz drummer. The raffish guitarists both look in good nick too, though it’s noticeable how much of the lead work Ronnie Wood takes. Boss Richards always gets the plaudits, but Sidekick Wood puts in the hard yards today. If any of the four are slowing up, sad to say it might be Keef.
They open with a triumvirate it’s hard to argue with – Start Me Up, Let’s Spend The Night Together, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll – before Tumbling Dice affords them space for a more expansive musical workout. Then, just to show how few fucks they’re in a position to give, they introduce Under My Thumb – sample lyric: “It’s down to me… the way she does just what she’s told” – as a “feminist anthem”. Still playing the snotty shits sticking a middle finger up at polite society.
The glint in Jagger’s eye is visible from the back of the stadium, especially as he drops his patter. “Are you giving it laldy?” he asks, tailoring his in-song chat for the locale. He asks if we’re supporting England in the World Cup, bullshits us about having chips with salt ‘n’ sauce, drops in a reference to the Barrowlands. Whoever’s scripting for him has done their homework.
Talk of the Barrowlands sets them up for Jimmy Reed cover Ride ’em On Down, the only full nod to their blues roots or their recent catalogue. It’s really one to appeal to purists. It’s when the Stones stir up their basic blues-rock with other ingredients that the magic happens, and two such instances are stand-outs here.
Paint It, Black, with its brooding Eastern cadences, is a reminder that these boys were exploring depression and dark nights of the soul long before a “U OK hun?” instagram post simply became an effective way for pop stars to shift more units. Ramshackle and lo-fi on record, it’s evolved over fifty years into a devilishly seductive beast. The stadium-high screens turn monochrome, and the band’s rumble rises from pitch-level, out over the stands, into the Edinburgh evening. You could listen forever.
And then there’s their funk period, best represented by Miss You. This time the screens flash neon with seductive figures of pouting women, as the groove works its way in. Bassist Darryl Jones breaks it down for an extended solo and it’s another moment that they could elongate as long as they like, for all we care. Jagger still nails every “woo-ooo-woo-ooo” like a man a third of his age. When you consider the likes of McCartney and, if reports from Jethro Tull’s Usher Hall gig are true, Ian Anderson, strain to sing in their normal range, it defies belief. For evidence of how strong Jagger is in his normal range, see the break down of Midnight Rambler when, exposed on the thrust stage, his vocals are largely unaccompanied.
The only slowie in the set, unfortunately, is You Can’t Always Get What You Want. No Ruby Tuesday, no Angie, no Wild Horses, no Fool To Cry, no – though this would always be wishful thinking – Sister Morphine. A couple would have given some more light and shade. Instead, for a change of vibe, we get the usual unwanted interlude of Keith songs, to allow nurse time to give Mick his meds and change his adult diaper. Pre-polled via the website, audience pick She’s a Rainbow misses out on getting the full psychadelic bells and whistles, and is another weak spot.
In such a catalogue, there are dozens of options for finales. Tonight they close the main set with Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Brown Sugar, another that modern sensibilities would have censored, but that the Stones are too badass/unreconstructed [delete according to personal politics] to pass over. And they close on an encore of two – Gimme Shelter and an almighty (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, which, if it is to be the last song they ever play in Scotland, is as good as you could hope for.
After the fireworks are finished, Watts is let out from behind his kit to join his bandmates on the thrust stage for a chummy bow to the crowd. Less gilded pensioners helming a multi-national business operation, more boyish miscreants in a rock ‘n’ roll gang.
Perhaps they’ll just never die.