ROCK / That voodoo that they do so well: Rolling Stones - JFK Stadium: It was lift-off on Monday night for the latest Rolling Stones tour. David Usborne went among the fans at JFK Stadium in Washington to hear the first blast declared 'awesome'

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Into these few moments, all the anticipation of what just could be the last tour of the 'greatest rock'n'roll band in the world' is suddenly now distilled. In the concrete cauldron of the JFK stadium in Washington, the lights go down and only the flickerings of cigarette lighters break the darkness.

Then the sound begins, a gathering growl of saxophone and bass guitar that emits vibrations so strong our insides begin to jiggle. And when we can hold our breath no longer, zoooom, the set explodes into a white light and there, front-stage, is the oddly puny, already writhing, figure of Mick Jagger.

It is at that instant that you know everything is going to be OK for the Stones. They may be old - Jagger was 51 last week - and they may be a little craggy. But here, in front of a capacity crowd of 60,000 and on a set of steel and lights that might be christened the Starship Blackpool, they were going to do their stuff, no sweat. No Zimmer frame jokes this evening, please.

With a 27-song performance that lasted more than two hours and melded new tracks with lots of the old - they opened with 'Not Fade Away' - the Rolling Stones offered a high-energy, if occasionally uneven, debut to their 43-city world Voodoo Lounge tour, which will keep them in North America almost until Christmas. Next year, they take it to Asia and then Europe.

Jagger himself could not resist a little self-deprecation. 'Not bad for a bunch of old farts,' he ventured, after a racing rendition of 'Sparks Will Fly', one of the new songs from the Voodoo Lounge album. True, his playing mates of three decades - Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts - did look a bit dazed towards the end of the evening. Jagger, though, gyrated and strutted like an 18-year-old throughout, hands darting like a Balinese dancer and lips curling as manically and suggestively as they ever did.

Still, they were helped a little. Two TelePrompters buried discreetly front-stage reminded the players of what song they were on and what was coming next. Even with them, Jagger for one brief moment in the closing half-hour seemed lost. 'What's next, Keith?' he asked plaintively. 'Are there any requests?' Meanwhile, a bank of electric fans powerful enough for any industrial wind-tunnel protected them from the dreadful

85-degree humidity.

And then there were the special effects that Stones concert-goers have come to expect. The first pyrotechnical flames erupt even during 'Not Fade Away' and the finale of old classics shortly before midnight - 'Brown Sugar', 'Start Me Up' and 'It's Only Rock'n'Roll (But I Like It)' among them - culminated in a firework display worthy, almost, of a Fourth of July party.

The focus of the sci-fi stage - 240ft wide and made from 176 tonnes of shining steel - is a huge screen filled with instantly mixed video images taken partly from the performance itself and partly from pre-recorded material. Most startling were the computer-generated images of the lips and tongue (with scary, snow-tyre barbs) that is the image gracing most of the tour T-shirts (expensive at dollars 25 each). The others are skulls (all over Keith Richards' shirt) and the sinuous yellow and black figure of a voodoo worshipper.

It was for the delivery of 'Love Is Strong', the first single to be released from the new album, that a satanic cast of inflatable dolls were introduced and draped around the video screen. Hindu gods, devilish babies and skeletons in top hats wobbled wildly while Jagger cavorted below in an outfit of coat and tails. There was even a 40ft Elvis, guitar and all. For a minute we seemed to be at Glyndebourne, when huge apparitions from Hades strode on stage, one a ram equipped with a giant phallus.

It was at 9.50pm, the temperature indicator on the upper terrace now showing a mere 84F when, finally, they gave us 'Satisfaction'. With the crowd roaring the lyrics, not much could be heard from the stage anyway.

This was a mixed crowd, age-wise if not racially. (Very few black faces here.) There were grey-haired mothers and fathers, some with their children. Most were professional-looking types and in their thirties. There were spliffs aplenty, but otherwise this was an orderly evening far- removed from those early Stones gigs in the Sixties. And there were some young fans too.

'I've grown up listening to my mum's music, it's what I've been hearing all my life,' said Sean Sebastian, 22, of Washington. 'My mum took me to a Stones concert in 1981, when I was only this big.' Nor, it seems, has that Jagger sex-appeal faded with age. Or at least not for 20-year-old Heidi Lutner, from Ocean City, Maryland. 'I just think that Mick Jagger is the most gorgeous thing in the world. He is the best.' Why? 'His lips. His lips.' Her friend, Jennifer Marks, looks appalled, however. 'Yuk, his lips are disgusting. They're wider than his cheeks. Pleeeease]' Mike Dixon, a 43-year-old financial administrator from Philadelphia, came because he is a 'Rolling Stones nut'. This was his fourth Stones concert. 'So what if they're old. I'm pretty old, aren't I?'

By 11.30, when the encores were really and truly over, some of the oldies punched their fists into the sky and hugged one another before they reluctantly headed for the exits. 'I've seen Jesus,' said a man slumped horizontally across two rows of seats behind me. The kids said only 'Awesome', over and over. 'We've seen a piece of history tonight,' said Terri, 21.

With Voodoo Lounge at No 2 in the American album charts, this tour, now that it has started at last, is looking in fine shape. Never mind that the first critical responses to Monday night's performance were a little mixed. For the Washington Post, for instance, the show was 'alternately rocky and rolling'. But, hey, here in RFK, we had fun - noisy, spectacular, nostalgic fun.

See Leader, p 13

(Photographs omitted)