Two questions hang over a Rolling Stones concert as inevitably as the pair of 200-ft inflatable nudes framing the stage. Can they cut it? Should they cut it? David Lister reports from Chicago on the first night of the `Bridges of Babylon' tour.
Mock Grecian pillars surrounded the stage, two bursts of fire shot into the darkness from a gold-rimmed circle suspended at the back of the stage, and there was Keith Richards in flowing full-length leopard-skin coat playing the unmistakable riffs to "Satisfaction". Enter Jagger in rough velvet frock coat - a tableau as theatrical as one might ever see at a rock concert.

Can they do it? Well, yes. Just. Their year-long world tour got underway in Chicago with the familiar high energy and spectacular effects. En route, almost endearingly, there were signs of insecurity, errors of judgement and first night nerves.

The suspended circle that had spat out the flame then became a giant video screen, the clearest one I have ever seen at a concert, and one that a few minutes later made damningly clear that Mick Jagger was strained and tense. Beware high technology: it can reveal to 54,000 people in glorious magnification anxieties once only shared with fellow band members.

For, as "Satisfaction" was followed by "It's Only Rock and Roll", it became evident that if you open your tour in a windy city, let alone the Windy City on a cold night, then the audience is unlikely to be blown away with excitement, but the sound is sure blown away in the wind.

In an almost gauche Home Counties rendering of the usual rock concert cry "All right", Jagger announced: "I feel really good I must say."

Alas, the curse of the video screen. It told a different story until the sight of the singer's drawn features was replaced by a kaleidoscope of patterns that turned into images of women's genitals. The crowd were eager to please and be pleased and seemed to find it witty. Let's face it, chaps can get a bit funny that way in their mid-fifties. Perhaps song and video will be exhibited at the Royal Academy as a piece of challenging installation art.

The Stones remain no strangers to excess and there they headed, taking their little joke and sledgehammering it as the screen showed a series of pornographic cartoons. No one's too squeamish about that, but these accompanied "Miss You", a haunting and soulful ballad. It was wildly inappropriate and became simply tasteless when followed by a picture of John Lennon.

Things were looking definitely dodgy for the first third of the show. The mustard seemed distinctly uncuttable. Satisfaction, definitely not got.

Then the great American public came to the rescue. The novel idea of having an Internet vote for the favourite song with the band pledged to perform it, brought an equally novel winner. Social historians take note: the age of political correctness in the USA may be over, or perhaps it's just that most net-users are male. Either way, the public's favourite was "Under My Thumb", the band's most sexist song. "That is one we happen to know," said Jagger relieved, "though I'm not sure if I remember the ending."

The stage cleared of back-up singers and brass section, few of whom would have even known the beginning, and the band, forced into improvising, eschewed flames and lasers for the sweat and abandon of a genuine piece of collaborative rock. The Rolling Stones suddenly looked like the Rolling Stones and the show never looked back.

In another novel touch, the whole group went walkabout, descending into the crowd on a ramp to a makeshift stage in the middle of the area to perform "The Last Time" and "19th Nervous Breakdown", two songs that they are known to hate performing because of lyrics that lend themselves satirical headlines. They were resoundingly received.

The brand-new album, though their best in years, did not get much of an airing, the band limiting themselves to three numbers. It sees Jagger and Richards pulling in different directions, Keith singing affecting and uncluttered blues, with Mick going for aggressive rock and experimentation with production techniques, even embracing techno.

But they climaxed this show with a reminder of how they can pull together with tremendous effect. "Sympathy for the Devil", a pulsating "Jumping Jack Flash" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" accompanied by a torrent of glitter flakes, were rounded off, for anyone still not properly warmed up, with "Honky Tonk Women" and "Brown Sugar".

Fireworks were superfluous but we got them anyway. More memorable was the glimpse through the stage, as the inflatable ladies deflated, of the Sears Tower. The perfect backdrop.

The much-rehearsed question of whether it is seemly for these crinkled- looking guys in their mid-fifties to be out there performing songs of sexual aggression is boring and sterile. If blues hero John Lee Hooker in his seventies can do it, why shouldn't Mick Jagger, fitter than any singer in the land and already a grandfather, do it too.

Equally, it's too often forgotten that the sneering and gyrating were always partly self-parody even from the earliest days. It is not the band's problem that rock music as a genre is perceived as only a young person's plaything, and it must be mystifying for them to send 54,000 people home happy and then get lectured for having the affront to do so.

The more productive debate is whether these virtual inventors and arch- exponents of stadium rock are best serviced by it. On Tuesday night, one admired the clinical professionalism and energy but was rarely genuinely excited by this uneven show, which best burst into life when the band forgot about the theatrics and played as if they were back in the clubs. A group still so tight, taut and potentially explosive needs smaller and indoor venues. Less money but more satisfaction all round.