When The Rolling Stones first played in Southampton at The Gaumont (now Mayflower) Theatre in 1963 this rock’n’roll game wasn’t one that came with a career plan.
They could hardly have foreseen that 55 years later they would be playing up the road at the local football stadium to about 25,000 people – and that it would count as a relatively intimate show by their record-breaking standards.
Launching appropriately enough with Start Me Up, the two-hour set is a masterclass in stadium rock.
Frontman Mick Jagger is as energetic as ever, covering the entirety of the vast stage without missing a beat, with guitarists Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards piling on the unmistakable riffs. And all the while drummer Charlie Watts anchors everything with apparently effortless ease. They manage to pull off the impressive trick of being loose without sloppy, while never appearing over-polished. But that has always been part of the Stones’ charm – there always has been an element of danger to the band’s playing.
The hits come thick and fast – Let’s Spend the Night Together, Tumbling Dice, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It), before Mick stops to refer back to that 1963 gig, when they supported Bo Diddley and The Everly Brothers. This tees up the band to pay tribute to their R’n’B roots, with a cover of Little Walter’s Just Your Fool. While it’s the most recently recorded Stones song played tonight (from their 2016 Blue and Lonesome album) it’s actually the oldest song of the night, dating back to 1962.
Unsurprisingly the 19-song setlist cleaves largely to their ’60s and ’70s creative peak.
There can’t be many bands who can insult most of the audience and still get away with it as Jagger does when he asks: ‘Is there anyone from Portsmouth here tonight?’ to a smattering of cheers, but even more boos. Jagger replies: ‘Oh, we’ve got some skates in... and some scummers!’ to huge cheers all-round.
Richards remains the epitome of louche cool, and is introduced by his long-standing partner-in-crime as ‘the local boy from West Wittering’ before he gets to lead a couple of songs, The Worst and Before They Make Me Run. Sadly no Happy, as he’s led elsewhere on the tour, but it’s a minor quibble.
Sympathy For The Devil is one of the more idiosyncratic numbers in their arsenal, but when the band fully kicks in behind Jagger’s opening verse it makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. It’s an outstanding rendition in a night full of them.
Brooding serial-killer ode, The Midnight Rambler is a thunderous epic, powered by a ripping solo from Ronnie and a break-down featuring retina-searing lights before it comes to a heart-stopping finale.
After that the straight-to-the-chorus Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a cathartic release.
And who would have thought that Tuesday nights being invited to chant, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, wooh!’ by a man in his mid-70s would be so much fun? But that’s Brown Sugar for you.
Following a short break, the band returns for the two song encore. Gimme Shelter gives backing vocalist Sasha Allen a chance to shine, as both her and Mick head down to the end of the gangway reaching out into the centre of the pitch and trade lines. It’s message is punched home by images of recent protests and riots played out on the giant video screens at the back of the stage.
The show climaxes with Satisfaction, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the crowd who agreed with the song’s sentiment.
With the main players all now in their 70s, this may very well be the last time we get to see The Stones tour the world’s stages. But with the band so clearly still enjoying performing (‘new boy’ Ronnie still looks like a kid who’s been given the keys to the candy store), and not obviously diminished by age, you wouldn’t bet against them heading out again.
And even the forecast rain rather obligingly held off – only starting to fall after the closing fireworks.