Pop: Back to basics

YOU HAVE to pay to get out of going through all these things twice, Bob Dylan once claimed, but even paying didn't stop punters having to queue up twice to get to see the Stones play what was probably their smallest gig in over two decades: once to get wrist-banded and ticketed in central London the day before the show, and again to get into the Empire for the show itself. The elaborate procedure was intended to combat ticket touts, though that didn't stop them cruising the line offering up to pounds 800 for a wristband and ticket. Dear reader, believe me, you are lucky to be reading this now.

Still, some things require a little dedication, and the chance to see The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band In The World without the aid of binoculars won out in the end. Even if it meant enduring the drunken swell of the downstairs moshpit, Ronnie Wood having apparently bagsied the entire balcony for his family and friends. A popular chap, obviously.

Before the show, expectations naturally ran high. Would they just transfer their stadium set to the smaller stage, or, unshackled from the computerised schedule of props and lights, take the opportunity to do something different? Who knows, maybe they might be inspired by the intimacy to revert to their origins - come out of the blocks with "Come On", and lead us through a glorious celebration of their tyro majesty? Wouldn't that be great?

It would indeed. So when they finally appeared, they opened with "Shattered". That's right, "Shattered". You must remember it - it's on, er, that would be Emotional Rescue? No, Some Girls, that's it. This night, apparently, would not be a greatest hits show. Which was fine in principle - particularly since it offered a rare opportunity to hear "I Got the Blues" in its full Southern-soul splendour, burnished by a horn section led by Bobby Keys. It was somewhat less welcome, though, for the undistinguished "Melody", never performed live before; if it was a toss-up between this and "Honky Tonk Women", you thought, they had made the wrong choice.

It wasn't, though. "Honky Tonk Women" duly appeared, an enjoyably ramshackle affair despite the occasional mistiming of the interlocking push/pull guitar figures that drive the song along. The Stones brand of rock'n'roll is heavily dependent on the devil-may-care looseness which Keith and Ronnie have come to exemplify; here, they pushed that paradox about as far as it could go without disintegrating entirely.

The show drew to a close with the welcome familiarity of "Tumblin' Dice", "Brown Sugar" and an encore of "Jumpin' Jack Flash", all featuring extended codas, during which Mick energetically essayed his own berserk semaphore as the crowd sang along joyously. The closest they got to their roots all evening was a brisk, brash run down "Route 66" and, if rumours are to be believed, it may be the last time - yes, yes, I know - that they make that particular journey. I hope not: for like the road itself, they remain an evocative, talismanic reminder of a more rugged, pioneering era.

Andy Gill