Rock column, Mail on Sunday, July 16 2006

The Rolling Stones
Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna

Back in the Eighties, when his relationship with Mick Jagger was going through a rocky patch, Keith Richards used to say he wanted to keep the Rolling Stones going because they were entering uncharted waters. īNobody in rockīnīroll [no band, anyway] has done it for this long,ī he would argue,īletīs see where this thing leads.ī

Now, after 44 years together, they know where it leads. They have reached the stage where a new album is no longer a major event. A Bigger Bang, released last autumn, is already widely and justly forgotten, and the Stones are in the charts now only with a compilation, Forty Licks, which has been reissued after only four years. Instead they measure out their lives in medical pronouncements. Charlie Watts has shaken off throat cancer, Ron Wood is just out of rehab again, and Keith himself has had head surgery after falling out of a tree.

Brushes with death, like the thing itself, do a career no harm. Leading the band out, Keith collects the first of several ovations. When he lovingly picks out the opening chords of Jumping Jack Flash, the thrill of a great song played live and loud comes wrapped in warmth, as 50,000 fans realise that the part of him where the riffs are stored is intact.

A blow to the head was hardly likely to defeat Keith. He is the heart of the Stones, the guts, the spine; Mick is the brains. If Mick had needed cranial surgery, anything could have happened – there might have been no merchandising catalogues in the bars, no corporate sponsor for the all-inclusive VIP Gold buffet.

Itīs no coincidence that he is the Stone who has remained fighting fit. He is made of different stuff from the rest of the band, or the human race: he is an android constructed out of pipe-cleaners and kinetic energy. If you start him up, heīll never stop. Heīll pout and preen and prance till he drops. Never mind Superman, letīs hear it for the return of Supermince.

What he wonīt do is dress well. A man of wealth, he has never quite cracked the taste. He has a weakness for the red and the shiny which suggests that had things not worked out with the band, he would have ended up managing a branch of Ann Summers.

The taste problem extends to his own material. The Stones never stint on the classics, but they play five tracks from A Bigger Bang in a doomed bid to prove they are still a creative force. They donīt even locate the best tracks. Far better to content themselves with She Saw Me Coming and Sweet Neo Con, and fit in more gems – Ruby Tuesday, Emotional Rescue, Wild Horses.

But when they are good, they are outstanding. Apart from a muddy Tumbling Dice, every old chestnut hits the spot. Honky Tonk Women is a shot of neat rockīnīroll. Miss You is sinuously camp, rock and disco rolled into one. Sympathy For The Devil is gleefully theatrical, As Tears Go By unexpectedly sweet, Satisfaction grittier than usual and fabulously stirring.

Jagger sings powerfully throughout, confirming that limited voices age better. Watts is a stylish anchor, and Richards and Wood give a guitar masterclass with their explosive economy and cheery telepathy. Itīs a pleasure just to watch their fingers on the giant screen.

The set design is terrific, the atmosphere buzzing: in Austria, they still wave lighters during the ballads. People wonder whether sexagenarians are too old to rockīnīroll, but on several fronts, age actually helps. It makes thin legs thinner still, it banishes all fear of looking ridiculous, and it gives a fellow something to defy. The question isnīt whether the Stones are too old to rock, but whether all those other bands are too young.