"Everyone was trying to get the band really on," Mick Jagger says in a still-revved-up voice, describing the best and most important thing about the Rolling Stones' shortest and most intensive tour ever: their five 50th-anniversary concerts in London, Brooklyn and New Jersey. "Keith concentrated on holding his parts together," the singer says of guitarist Keith Richards, "and I wasn't letting the vocals take second place. We wanted to put the music out in a good way, not just be flash."
With stripped-down arena production, career-spanning set lists and a renewed focus on their natural kinetic-blues drive, the Stones reasserted their right, at these gigs, to the title of the world's greatest rock & roll band. And they will keep doing it on the road next year. "There have been quite a few offers," Jagger says, two days after the final show in Newark. "I'm going to see what's on the table and discuss it with everyone," referring to Richards, guitarist Ron Wood and drummer Charlie Watts. "We'll announce it when we've figured it out."
"Really, all you're going to have to do is wait for an announcement," Richards confirms with a raspy laugh. The birthday shows "went like a dream, at the same speed, man. But we barely got off the starting blocks," he insists. "It would be dopey to bring things up to this level and say, 'Well, that's that, 50 years, bye-bye.'"
The closing show – December 15th in Newark, shown on pay-per-view television – had the tour's highest concentration of guest-star power: a blues-guitar fusillade featuring John Mayer and rising star Gary Clark Jr.; the Black Keys pumping up the Bo Diddley beat in a rare Stones cover of "Who Do You Love"; Bruce Springsteen turning on his Jersey-bar roar in "Tumbling Dice"; and Lady Gaga going toe-to-toe with Jagger in "Gimme Shelter," the former in outrageously high heels. "She had big heels on for the rehearsal," Jagger notes. "But when it came to the show, they got even larger."
A recurring highlight in London and Newark was ex-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, soloing in vintage form with Richards and Wood in "Midnight Rambler." But when they had the stage to themselves, the Stones – with pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Darryl Jones – stuck close to "the band's natural feel," as Richards puts it: the rough heat and tight grind of their early-Seventies LPs and tours. "Everybody talks about how they like the sloppiness of the Rolling Stones," Jagger says. "But there's a difference between having swerve and being too sloppy."
Drummer Patrick Carney of the Black Keys says the first thing he noticed at rehearsal, the day before their guest spot, was that the Stones "were so friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn't nearly as scary as we anticipated." The second revelation: "There was nothing nostalgic about them. The way Keith and Ronnie play together – you don't see that kind of realness. Every song is a living, breathing thing."
"Nostalgia is not this band's strong point," Richards affirms. "It was almost kicking and screaming to get us to this 50-year thing. We eventually realized it was a good time to put things together again. 'Hey, 51 years? Don't give a shit.'"
Close to a year of rumination, discussion and planning went into the brief anniversary tour. "Mick took the longest to come along," Richards claims. "He was there with it, but it was always 'Give me another reason.' I know Charlie didn't need persuading. He just wanted to make sure Mick wanted to do it."
"It wasn't really a debate," Jagger counters. "I originally said, 'We can do anything. We can do one club show, if you want.' But I always imagined it was going to be brief." Jagger says the Stones added the 12-12-12 benefit in New York to the itinerary at the last minute "because we were there."
Despite extensive rehearsals in Paris, plus two club shows there, the band left some decisions to chance and the last minute. The Stones practiced "I Wanna Be Your Man," the Lennon-McCartney song they cut in 1963, at different tempos before settling on one closer to "Start Me Up," "with a lot more power and funk to it," Richards says. The Stones and the Black Keys didn't pick their Bo Diddley song until the Keys got to rehearsal, straight from the airport after finishing a British tour. And Springsteen nailed "Tumbling Dice" in practice right away. "We just did it once," Jagger recalls, "and he said, 'I think that's really gonna be good.'"
The first hint of 2013 Stones concerts came the day before the second show in Newark, when the band's iPhone app listed an appearance next April at Coachella. That info quickly disappeared from the official schedule, and Jagger swears he doesn't know how it got there, that he had not been approached about playing at the festival. "I always said that we'd see how this would go, and then we'd think about doing more – or not."
It's his turn to laugh when asked about Richards' standard optimism on Stones shows: that there is always more down the line. "Keith and Ronnie say things to the press," he says, "because that's their line. They don't say, 'Oh, I think about it carefully.' But they think about it as carefully as Charlie and I do. The reality is they are as tentative as anybody else."
Richards concedes there are serious questions to be answered about live work in the Stones' 51st year: how much to do, how to do it. "That will definitely come into the equation," he says. "At the same time, a gig's a gig. The curtain opens and there you are. I just get the feeling – they're itching at the bit now." There's one more laugh. "This thing wasn't enough."
This story is from the January 17th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.