'It's been a sometimes difficult, and always a strange trip," Lindsey Buckingham tells the people of Dublin in a rehearsed line which was surely scripted specifically to open reviews such as mine, "but the point is, we're here." Fleetwood Mac is rock's longest-running soap opera, and had already supplied several dramatic episodes before Buckingham ever joined the cast. There was Peter Green, the talented but troubled leader of the Mac Mk I, the man who sang "I just wish that I had never been born..." then vanished. There was Jeremy Spencer, the guitarist who ran away to join the Children of God cult.
But if Fleetwood Mac were merely survivors of the British blues boom, they would have been a footnote in rock history. It was when a pretty, petite, buck-toothed blonde with a turned-up nose and lazy eyes arrived on the scene that things started to get interesting.
Rock already had its male mystics, its shamans (Hendrix, Morrison, even Bolan). Stevie Nicks provided a female counterpart: the witch. In "Rhiannon", her most important, defining song, Nicks - in reality a white trash waitress/ cleaner from Hollywood - literally reinvented herself as a Welsh witch (to this day, her songs are published by Welsh Witch Music). It was a theme to which she would return time and time again: in "Gold Dust Woman" she's an "ancient queen", a "dragon". Venturing deep into the mystic, Stevie Nicks was perpetually lost in rapture (she is forever giving herself up to nature, a woman "taken by the sky" or "drowning in the sea of love"), setting a template for pop sorceresses like Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux and Courtney Love (a massive Nicks-ophile).
So painstaking is Nicks's self-transformation into an other-worldly faerie goddess (she actually lives in a gothic castle, and if we must have millionaire rock stars, then for God's sake let them live in gothic castles), that it had honestly never occurred to me that she actually exists in the real world.
Seeing her in the flesh is quite a shock to the system and, for an unashamed worshipper, an emotional experience. No longer the balletic nymph from the Rumours sleeve, she ambles about the stage a little awkwardly now, but still carries herself with poise and grace. Even in her huge platform boots she's tiny, but her presence fills the stone interior of this erstwhile train shed.
She looks exactly as one would expect and hope, swishing around in a black lace Romany skirt, carrying a tambourine cascading with ribbons, and singing at a microphone stand draped in scarves and roses, as though attempting to recreate her bohemian refuge from the song "Gypsy" ("a room, with some lace and paper flowers..."). There's an awful moment during "Come" when Lindsey Buckingham, pirouetting recklessly with his guitar, knocks her stand crashing to the floor, and a crew member has to restore it to its original state before Nicks retakes the stage. Of course, if you believe the urban myth, the helper missed the golden age by two decades: everybody's heard the one about Stevie's, ahem, personal roadie and the drinking straw (now there's a vacancy you don't see advertised in the local Jobseekers' office).
This is more-or-less the Rumours line-up, but we see and hear more of Stevie tonight than you would have done in 1977. Co-singer Christine McVie has retired now, which is frankly no great loss. She may have had the coolest maiden name in pop (Perfect), but she was basically Jane from Rod, Jane & Freddy, with a voice like Glade air freshener. Nicks, by contrast, had a voice flavoured with cinnamon and aniseed. Listen to the "Little Lies" some time, and hear the way Nicks's backing vocals on the chorus ("tell me lies...") effortlessly upstage McVie's lead. Her larynx is a thing of unnatural wonder: every time she opens her mouth, this sound comes out - this ovine bleat - which does strange things to me without even trying (and elevates even the unfamiliar new Say You Will material into something truly moving).
At 54, Stevie's sometime old man, Buckingham, is still too handsome for his own good, and a phenomenally good guitarist. Taking "Big Love" solo, he shows off his high-speed fingers in true Deliverance style. He's equally compelling on "Tusk" one of the most insane British hit singles ever - grunting his paranoia over those tribal drums and marching majorettes.
The Buckingham-Nicks chemistry still sizzles. They do that facing-each-other thing, raking over the coals, picking at the scabs of their on again/ off again affair ("Your eyes say yes," she sings, staring into his, "but you don't say yes"). On "Go Your Own Way", they even appear oblivious to the loudest crowd singalong of the night: this is personal. During "Landslide", Stevie squeezes Lindsey's shoulders and kisses his back. At the end, they clasp hands and embrace, and he kisses her hair. There's still love there.
There's a tangible US-UK divide between the two Californian hippies at the front and the two waistcoated Englishmen at the back. John McVie is an odd little fellow, the Baldrick of the band, which would make Mick Fleetwood the Percy: a lanky buffoon (and, in all honesty, an irritant), mugging to the cameras with his wide-eyed gurning. Fleetwood almost ruins the whole show with a heinous drum solo during the encores (prancing around with a hand-held tom-tom, and thumbing electronic touch pads on his tummy).
But Mick's clowning cannot diminish music like this. "I'd rather jack than Fleetwood Mac" sang Scouse SAW townies The Reynolds Girls, but they weren't the first to define themselves against FM. In 1977, at their 25 million-selling peak, the Mac represented everything that punk stood against. In retrospect, it's possible to derive an illicit thrill from the associations of West Coast soft rock: open necked shirts, hair rippling in the Pacific breeze, smog sunsets reflected in mirrored aviator shades, the world's finest cocaine on smoked glass tabletops. All that stuff may have been The Enemy in the days of punk, but if punk means we can't get off on the Mac, then screw punk.
"Dreams" may be meteorologically inaccurate ("thunder only happens when it's raining" indeed), "Stand Back" (actually a Nicks solo release, and the one song tonight where she really lets go and loses it) may now be the Football Focus theme, "Don't Stop" will forever be Bill Clinton's election anthem, and "The Chain" has always screamed Murray Walker, but with Stevie Nicks to carry them, there is no naffness they cannot transcend.
"Have you any dreams you'd like to sell?" she sings. I'm buying.
NEC, Birmingham (0121 780 4133), Tue & Wed; Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, London SW5 (0870 903 9033), Sat & 30 Nov; tour continuesReuse content