"Thank you very much, San Diego, you were bloody wonderful!" Mick Jagger shouted from the stage at Petco Park on May 24th. The Rolling Stones had just finished the first night of their 15-date Zip Code stadium tour, delivering well over two hours of rock & roll – from the raucous "Jumpin' Jack Flash" that opened the show through the encore of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (assisted by a California choir) and "Satisfaction," with a handful of deep cuts unearthed along the way – and it had all gone off without a hitch. "I was enjoying myself," Jagger says when he calls two days later. "It's hard to fake it if I wasn't." Keith Richards agrees. "Usually, the first two or three shows, the band feels they're not quite on," he says. "And sometimes it's the truth. But this one, right out the gate, it sounds great."
Four nights before the San Diego show, the Stones faced a different test: playing every song from 1971's Sticky Fingers, some of which they haven't touched in a decade or more, during a last-minute club gig at Los Angeles' 1,200-capacity Fonda Theatre. "We're all high on the fact that we actually did it," says Ronnie Wood. (The Stones have also reissued the classic LP in a deluxe new edition.) Tickets for the L.A. show, which went on sale that day for just $10, sold out in minutes; when fans arrived at the venue, they were refunded their money in another surprise. Jagger says the band put in extra effort in rehearsals, knowing that the gig was being filmed for potential release. "We had to revisit tunes that we don't do very often, and we had to make sure they worked really well," he says. "We worked quite hard on 'Sister Morphine' and 'I Got the Blues.' They're not actually that easy to do – it's not simple 12-bar stuff." In the end, though, the club date was a piece of cake. "Small gigs in the beginning are almost a tradition to the Stones," says Richards. "We go, 'Well, we started in places this size. If we can do this, the rest of it is just magnification.'"
Next came San Diego, the Stones' first U.S. stadium gig since 2006. With Petco Park in constant use thanks to baseball season, the band was unable to rehearse there until a brief soundcheck the day of the show. "Baseball stadiums can be a little bit tricky, because they're so wide," Jagger says. "It can be difficult to get the feeling of whether we're reaching the audience or not. You just have to do the best you can." He says he knew the show was going well about 20 minutes in, during "Tumblin' Dice," when he walked out into the middle of the floor-section crowd on a long, thin catwalk. "Every time you get onstage in a stadium, you go, 'I forgot how big it was,'" adds Richards. "You can't not be excited when you have that many people in the audience. It's an exchange of adrenaline."
The set peaked with a show-stopping "Moonlight Mile," which the Stones last played in 1999 before the L.A run-through. "You don't really know if that's right for a stadium, because it's a bit intimate," Jagger says. "But it seemed to work. I felt really good about it. I make mistakes when I get carried away, but I didn't screw it up!"
Richards says the Stones will rotate in other Sticky Fingers rarities as the tour goes on. "We'll cycle in maybe three or four a night," says the guitarist, mentioning "You Gotta Move," where he plays a 12-string slide guitar, as a likely candidate. "It was very, very interesting in a theater," he says. "Maybe I'll give it a bash. Now that the band has felt its way in and got its feet wet, anything's possible." In San Diego, opening act Gary Clark Jr. added a blazing solo to "Bitch," and Jagger says they plan to collaborate with some of their other openers on this tour, who range from the Avett Brothers to Buddy Guy: "I'm sure we'll do some good duets on the road."
One notable absence was former guitarist Mick Taylor, a key collaborator at the original Sticky Fingers sessions. In 2012, nearly 40 years after quitting the Stones, Taylor returned as a guest on their 50 and Counting Tour, but he won't be appearing on this run. "Mick Taylor is a shadow, man – he comes and he goes," says Richards. Adds Wood, "I play the Taylor-made parts, as I call them. In a way, it's less complicated to play with just Keith."
Wood's chemistry with Richards was obvious in San Diego, where they made each other laugh almost as often as they traded licks. Both guitarists ran up to the front of the stage during Jagger's band introductions, soaking up the crowd's love. Charlie Watts, meanwhile, looked as if he practically had to be dragged up to take his bow. "I kid with him because he's a bit reticent," says Jagger. "I mess around and push him, and he doesn't really mind."
Richards and Wood agree that the state of the Stones is strong in 2015. "I think it's the best vibe ever within the band," says Wood. "We've never been closer." Richards alludes to the tragic death last year of Jagger's longtime girlfriend, designer L'Wren Scott: "Mick went through that terrible thing, and the band has become even more important to him because of that," says the guitarist.
While the Stones haven't released a new album since 2005, Richards says that could change sooner rather than later. "Funny you should mention that," he says. "Just last week, the word 'studio' popped up while we were rehearsing. I said, 'Well, let's find a time. I'm ready!'"
But first, the band is mulling a possible South American tour this fall. "I'm looking at what the options are," says Jagger. "We haven't etched it in stone." One thing's for sure: Retirement is still firmly off the table. "I feel pretty good, actually," he says. "Sometimes at the beginning of these tours, you feel a bit achy. But I'm in good shape. It's all about avoiding being injured. You've just got to watch it and not overdo it, and you should be able to do it for a little bit longer." Jagger laughs. "It's like being on some dreadful football team!"