The Stones in Hyde Park – the glorious return
Forty four years on from the iconic 1969 Hyde Park gig, with hippies in the trees and out of tune guitars blazing, when Mick appeared, poetry in hand, in a cloud of woozy butterflies, the Stones return triumphant. Things are a little different this time. It’s not free for one. It’s the second of the Stones’ gigs in Hyde Park, a multi-million pound money spinner, tattooed with corporate sponsorship, and hospitality areas, but it’s still undeniably exciting.
Baby-boomers mix with young trendy Londoners; behind us a group of lads from Liverpool clamber on each other’s shoulders and try and guess the set list. It’s the hottest day of the year so far, the grass is parched yellow on the banks of the Serpentine, public school boys sell ten pound pizzas and crowds queue for hours for five pound pints of Heineken. There are a few concessions to a festival atmosphere – a funfair and mini carnival straight out of Rio de Janeiro; plus a fake Spanish/Cuban village where beer is dispensed, but really it’s all window dressing for the main event.
Beneath a stage half concealed by fake oaks and foliage, the band are a sensational force, matured to perfection showing off both their superb musicianship and unbeatable song writing chops. Start Me Up grinds into gear, like a giant machine lumbering back into life, burning off the rust, despite Keith repeating his odd, atonal intro from the week before. Perhaps he’s stubbornly making the point that it was intentional.
‘Do you like our set?‘ drawls Mick, ‘I think it should stay here in the park. Maybe with a tree house for Boris Johnson or something.’ As they charge into It’s only Rock and Roll (But I like it) with it’s Chuck Berry guitar he’s already up and preening, essaying those patented Jagger moves: the peacock strut, the leap in the air with the karate chop arm, the lip pout with seal clap. ‘Are you alwight?‘ he shouts, following by a Jackson-esque ‘Ow!’ For anyone playing Moves like Jagger bingo, they would have had a full house by the end of the second number.
The set is familiar to anyone who has seen their Glastonbury Performance and all the corner stones of their career are in place. With the exception of a jagged, Doom and Gloom, from the latest compilation Grrr, however there is little from the 90s or 00s, which is a shame for fans of their underrated, rough round the edges album A Bigger Bang. But that’s not really the point of this 50th birthday party celebration. The grinning keyboard player strikes the cowbell and signals the delirium that is Honky Tonk Women; Jagger sings it in his wildest country twangs – almost as an impression of himself, conscious perhaps of its place deep in our collective psyche. Its also a wonder to watch the intricate guitar work between Keef and Ronnie as they noodle between the chords (what Keith has called elsewhere ’the two of us twinkling felicitously together’).
Boris would have had a bird’s eye view of a valedictory performance from this fabled bad, so legendary in fact it’s odd even seeing them in the flesh. As a band they are ten times as tight as they were, without losing that loose, languid beat that gives every song that wonderful, drag. As someone near me said, ‘Charlie is so behind the beat it sounds like he’s playing different songs with a different band,’ but then that’s the Stones sound. He sits bolt upright on his stool, drumsticks held jazz style, still rake thin, his jaw set in concentration with a far away look in his eye – as if from where he is sitting he can see all the way back down the decades.
As ever, Mick is part ring master, part aerobics instructor, doing the lion share of the work, introducing the band – even coaxing a hello from a permanently shy Charlie. ‘He speaks!’ Jagger announces, delighted. His vocals sound great – elastic and rangy, and his falsetto on Some Girls Miss You is perfect. In facts it’s in these funkier, dance grooves that Jagger seems to feel most at home, as if he would be quite happy living in a world of late seventies New York disco. He works his way, Mr Ben-like, through at least ten different costumes from floaty purple shirts, natty gold jackets, to Grace Jones like fur gowns anchored to his skin tight, black bodysuit.
Street Fighting Man is barnstorming; close your eyes and it sounds just as good as it did on the classic Live Album ‘Get your Ya Ya’ Out.’ The only difference between then and now is Jagger‘s anachronistic announcement: ‘This is a request from the internet.’
Keith is happy to hang back, grinning and laughing good naturedly; romancing his guitar, his gold rings glinting in the sunlight. Now grey haired but with a blue headband and colourful clobber, he is pirate, magician and snake charmer rolled into one. With the neck of his guitar raised, he lets the open chords ring out. He steps forward for a couple of numbers of his own while Mick goes off to change his leotard, (‘so I can go and get my water and my Coke‘). Keith clearly enjoys himself, wheezing through ‘You Got the Silver,’ with Ronnie on slide, as well as the upbeat ’Happy’ from Exile on Main Street, which is a surprise high point of the set. His voice is weathered, but oozing with warmth and character; buoyed by soulful contributions of backing singer, Lisa.
Other songs accentuate the Stone‘s darker side; Paint it Black is wonderful, with its eastern flourishes – and images of Brian Jones flashed up on the screen alongside black and white live footage of the band. Gimme Shelter is also suitably menacing, with its iconic guitar intro and Mick clearly enjoying his high octane duet with the formidable Lisa: ‘Oh, storm is threatening, my very life today!’ Sympathy for the Devil, complete with sulphurous smoke, spouting lava and trees in flames is as demonic as ever and the crowd duly obliges with a chorus of train whistle whooping.
Mick Taylor ambles on for Midnight Rambler. The one time Stone whose first gig was that Hyde Park gig in ‘69 is now quite a few stones heavier and appears twice the size of toothpick-thin Mick Jagger. But his guitar playing is still as spectacular and the attack and nifty interplay with Mick’s harp makes this a welcome collaboration – and not just for nostalgic reasons.
On the whole, Charlie, Keith and Mick seem at ease throughout, having shaken off the distracted, angst ridden demeanour of yesterday. Ronnie seems more preoccupied, although his playing is outstanding, switching between pedal steel, acoustic and electric. Even now, there’s a sense he’s still on probation, having to prove his place in the band. Darryl Jones, the bass player who has supported them loyally since Bill Wyman jumped ship in the early nineties, is also given his own spotlight during Emotional Rescue – and more than proves his metal on the funky runs.
At the end, with a nod back to the white butterflies back in 1969, the crowd is showered in a confetti of red petals during a climatic Satisfaction. Then the four of them stand shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, as amazed as we are perhaps, that they are still in such fine nick, still clinging to their rusting crowns, as the greatest rock and roll band in the world.