ROCK / Settling old scores: Giles Smith watches Keith Richards close at hand in his 'secret' show at the Marquee, London

OUTSIDE the Marquee club, the queue of the ticketless stretched mournfully up the street for 30 yards. And inside, the fortunate ones were wedged to within a cubic inch of the fire and safety regulations, waiting for Keith Richards, the Rolling Stone. And then waiting a bit more. Richards was due on at 9.00. At 9.20, a muffled voice announced the concert would begin in 10 minutes. Ten minutes later, there was still half an hour to go. The person behind the tape-deck teased us with a few Rolling Stones oldies. And finally on he came, a variety of scarves and towels tied to his hair, his belt, his arms and his legs, hand swinging across the strings in the opening chords of 'Take it to Heart'.

This was Keith Richards' secret show - if you can call 'secret' a concert the details of which mysteriously leaked on to Ceefax in the middle of last week. Later this month, Richards will appear more conventionally at the Town & Country Club: in the meantime, here was a chance to work small with the pick-up group he calls the X- pensive Winos: drummer Steve Jordan, saxophonist Bobby Keys (veteran of Rolling Stones sessions and concerts and the only man on stage with a sensible haircut), second guitarist Waddy Watchel, bassist Charley Drayton and Ivan Neville on keyboards and strictly unnecessary third guitar. They played 'Eileen' from Richards' recent solo album Main Offender and then, in the moment at which audience noise rose to its peak, dropped into the intricate cross- patterns that open 'Gimme Shelter'.

The first time Keith Richards played at the Marquee was in 1962 when the club was in Wardour Street (two streets away from its present premises) and under different management, and Richards' band was trying out a new name - the Rolling Stones. And the last time Keith Richards played at the Marquee, he tried to lay out the owner, Harold Pendleton, with the thin end of a guitar. This was in 1971, when the Rolling Stones were filming a television show at the venue and Richards wanted the giant stage backdrop with the Marquee logo taken down. According to Bill Wyman in his autobiography, Stone Alone, Richards bore the Marquee a long- term grudge. 'Our views on Pendleton dated back to the earliest days of the Stones when the jazz crowd tried to impose a 'closed shop' on rock'n'roll and block our progress. And we never forgot.'

So perhaps it was an indication of a mellowing with time, or a gesture of good will, that beneath the black jacket with the fop's red handkerchief drooping from the pocket, and under the grape-coloured jerkin, Richards had elected to wear a Marquee T- shirt. Then again, it's hard to know how to interpret the treatment the T- shirt had come in for: the neck stripped off, the front torn to mid- chest level, one shoulder completely unstitched and tied up in a knot, and what looked like a bullet-hole drilled low in the back. Either this was designer brigand's wear, or Richards should fire the person responsible for his ironing.

In ordinary circumstances, because of the size of the Rolling Stones touring operation, if you want to see Keith Richards you're reduced to peering at him from half-way up a football stand. Accordingly, on Wednesday night, the small details took on a special allure for the audience. And so it can be revealed: Keith Richards uses a red plectrum. Spot that from Row 493, Block Z, Wembley Stadium.

The best moments were those when Richards opened a song by playing its riff unaccompanied - a series of dragged chords and sudden halts in which it was difficult to pick out the beat. Then the drums would come in and make sense of everything. It reminded you that the sound of a gritty electric guitar slamming up tight against the bass drum or the snare is rock's most perpetually satisfying ritual, and Richards its most accurate perpetrator.

We are not conditioned to expect the movements of a frontman from Richards, whose activity repertoire has sometimes seemed limited to some hunching down, some rather graceful sauntering across the back of the stage, and a bit of gentle leaning into the back of the nearest available band member. Something about playing away from the Stones, though, seems to quicken him to more elaborate exertion, his hands flying away from the strings, his torso making low surges at the stage.

There was always going to be a question mark hanging over the Richards vocals, though; he's been known in the past to sound like two grizzly bears scrapping in a subway. But here, his voice seemed to ring clearer than usual, perhaps through disciplined abstinence from the Marlboros; despite the provision on the drum riser of an ashtray the size of a soup bowl, Richards only lit up after six songs and troubled the packet just twice thereafter. Otherwise, he could pull right away from the microphone at some points and let the backing vocals carry the melody through. You were grateful, when 'Time's On My Side' opened up, that Sarah Dash was on hand to take a stirring lead.

The band moved lightly through 'Hate It When You Leave' and closed the set with a genuinely awful rendering of 'Happy', though by that point few people were going to let a de-tuned guitar or two get in the way of their fun. Mick Jagger was seen enjoying himself on the balcony, but he didn't come down for the encore ('Rip It Up'). More to the point, neither did Ronnie Wood. If there was one aspect of the show more amazing still than Richards holding a melody, it was Ronnie Wood missing out on an encore.