"It's great to see all our friends, wives, ex-wives ... and that's just Charlie," smirked Mick Jagger halfway through the Rolling Stones' semi-secret performance at London's Shepherds Bush Empire -- a tiny theater which, appropriately enough, once hosted the BBC's comedy programs.| The crowd -- and Keith Richards -- erupted into laughter, appreciative of any sign of familiarity from the lead Stone. Tellingly, the joke drew more applause than the string of Seventies material with which the band opened. For the first few songs -- "Shattered," "It's Only Rock & Roll," "Respectable" -- the intimacy of the occasion, seeing Keith wink at Charlie Watts or grimace his way through a tricky riff, rendered the spectacle simply electrifying. But by the time we reached "Melody" ("Don't think we've ever played this live before," Jagger informed us) or "Saint of Me," complete with a dull stadium sing-along, it looked as if the Stones' charisma was diminished rather than magnified by the small setting.
Jagger's energetic prancing seemed designed for a stadium -- watching from the privileged distance of five or six feet revealed no eye contact, no expression and scant emotion behind his constant movement. At least he was working for the money -- his colleagues were on auto-pilot, Richards' and Ron Wood's guitars one wall of mush, while Watts was content merely to tickle his drums. The excitement quotient was flagging badly when Jagger introduced "I Got the Blues" -- and the band reminded all those present just how inimitable they are at their best. Richards' immaculately sloppy guitar intro, lovingly-executed two-note harmonies, eased us into an achingly beautiful rendition of this Sticky Fingers-era Otis Redding cover. The horn-section, with Bobby Keys at its head, provided a tight frame against which Wood's and Richards' loose melodies and Jagger's superbly impassioned, but never overcooked, vocals seemed effervescently fresh.
For a few fleeting minutes decades slipped away, and the Stones revealed themselves as the slickest garage band in history. A cover of Bobby Troup's "Route 66" seemed just as full of adolescent joy as when the band recorded it as the opener of their 1964 debut album: Keith's guitar solo a stylish marvel, Jagger's singing full of youthful bravado. But the excitement of those moments was rendered more poignant by their scarcity. For "Honky Tonk Women," eagerly greeted by the crowd, Richards and Wood's sloppy style deteriorated into a couldn't-care-less mess, as Keith simply ignored the song's trademark opening riff. Guest singer Sheryl Crow, the night's support act, could make little impression with her guest vocal over the song's formless confusion -- par for the course on a night when saxman Keys seemed subdued, while Wood's spotlight moments were simply dreadful. With almost two years of solid touring behind them, it seemed as if the Stones were simply bored by their own classics.
For most of those present, of course, being within spitting distance of their idols was enough to compensate for the uninspired moments. Yet when all those present moved up a gear, with Keith's superb acoustic rendition of "You Got the Silver," a storming "Brown Sugar," and a positively brutal "Jumping Jack Flash," Richards' claim that the Stones are quite simply a "great little rock & roll band" seemed fully justified. Yet as the crowd drifted out at the end of a hot, sweaty evening that had only intermittently flickered into life, there was a general feeling that the privilege of seeing the Rolling Stones so close was balanced by the fact that the band's disinterest seemed all the more obvious.