London Shepherd's Bush Empire

It is the sound of a band forced out on the road much longer than originally envisaged; the sloppiness, lack of cohesion, avoidance of any meaningful material or performance, all indicative of gnaw

Everyone knows that Mick is the sexually incontinent gym master, gurning and shape-throwing his way to the zimmer frame, camper than Christmas, the indefatigable rocking luvvie. But frontline cohorts Keef and Ronnie, snickering and snivelling behind the old dame's petticoats, are much the same, terminally suckered by their image as jet-set vagabond wastrels. They are the boys who can get away with anything, the Father Jacks of rock'n'roll beloved for their indulgent lifestyle and the devilish deal which gives them easy access to rockin' riff nirvana. Allegedly.

But tonight the Faustian pact isn't holding up. They preen and slouch, contort themselves around their guitars like arthritic orang-utans trying to find the big banana. Occasionally something glimmers - the beginning of a beautiful noise perhaps - but it is never more than a flicker. Just as quickly as it emerges the two court jesters have either collapsed in amazement or stepped back to admire their handiwork, unable to follow it.

In pontificating mode, Keef likens the guitar interplay by which the Stones die or fly to "the ancient art of Chinese weaving". But in a performance like this one it is the aural equivalent of bad plumbing. Spluttering, gurgling and unable to find release on the opening 'Shattered', dribbling away into a selection of weedy Chuck Berry riffs on 'It's Only Rock'n'Roll', becoming a sludge-blocked drain pile-up on a calamitous 'Respectable'. Just three songs in and the Stones' perennial create-a-media-fuss-with-a-small-scale-club-gig routine is suffering from strictly second-rate song selection. Soon the choices get even worse.

OK, it may not be a doddle summoning up enthusiasm night after night for such blitzed-out classics as 'Gimme Shelter', 'Paint It Black' or 'Sweet Virginia' (all beyond their reach tonight), but when the alternative is latter-day dogs like 'Moon Is Up', 'Saint Of Me' and 'You Got Me Rocking' it can't be that hard. "If you want to hear us do familiar stuff you have to come and see us up the road," pouts Jagger, an ever vigilant eye on Wembley ticket sales. Then he introduces 'Melody', a song from 'Black And Blue' which they've never played live before. And for very good reason, it's low-rent sleaze that mocks their rapidly fading greatness.

Seeing the Stones up close like this can be an opportunity to rejoice in their past, as it was when they treated their hometown to a blistering display at Brixton on their last British tour. But tonight is not about the music, it's a publicity gambit where a cold, smug and effacing attitude holds forth. It is the sound of a band forced out on the road much longer than originally envisaged; the sloppiness, lack of cohesion, avoidance of any meaningful material or performance, all indicative of gnawing boredom.

Not that it matters to the audience - superstar pals in the balcony, salivating fans in the stalls - all prepared to indulge Jagger's fantasy of pop invincibility throughout and who seem happy to settle for the singalong payoff of 'Brown Sugar', 'Honky Tonk Women' (Mick cavorting with duet guest Sheryl Crow) and 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'. As the crowd take over, the Stones are long past caring or trying; they look and sound like old blokes badly in need of a rest. Time to nail down the coffin lids again, kids.

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