It’s been two weeks now since the most surreal experience of my life – watching the Rolling Stones live in concert. In an age where touts dominate the ticketing market, I never thought I’d get the opportunity to see the Stones, who are still arguably the most popular band on the planet even after 50 years together. When I saw that they’d announced a European tour with no UK dates, it didn’t even cross my mind to look at going to one of the shows. Fortunately, and to my surprise, my girlfriend put me into complete shock when she revealed that she had gone and bought us tickets to see them at the Red Bull Ring Arena in Austria! I was over the moon.
The Stones know full well that after all this time they can still play anywhere in the world and sell it out, and so choosing somewhere as remote and as difficult to reach as Spielberg in Austria seemed a clever plan to prevent tickets from selling within seconds. Spielberg is also a location surrounded by a number of countries and cities though, and so after much discussion and deliberation over the logistics of getting to the venue, we opted for Bratislava.
The journey to the arena was a four hour bus ride, taking us over the Slovakian border and through the beautiful mountainous regions of central Austria. There must have been over 200 coaches and buses parked at the top of the hill overlooking the arena, including a bonkers but incredible retro Rolling Stones-themed bus, but the spectacular backdrop made the half-hour walk to the entrance enjoyable and put into perspective just how incredible the setting was for this concert.
Opening act John Lee Hooker Jr. played his set as we queued to get inside the arena, but I was so distracted by the electric atmosphere and the sun setting behind the mountains in the distance that I wasn’t really paying much attention the music. By the time we’d entered the arena, grabbed food and drink, and found our seats, the second and final support act were just about to take to the stage.
I hadn’t heard of Kaleo before the concert, but I was really impressed with their slow, bluesy sound, and particularly impressed with the lead singer’s Robert Plant-esque vocals. As Kaleo’s set began to draw to a close, the venue started to rapidly fill its 100,000 capacity, the day turned to night, and the reality of seeing the Stones started to kick in.
Once Kaleo’s set had finished, the iconic tongue and lips logo appeared on the four huge stage screens with a striking yellow background, and the sea of fans roared with excitement. We were sitting about halfway up the seated area almost directly opposite the stage, so we had the perfect view of the arena. It was mind-blowing to observe just how much of a monster this concert was, and I couldn’t help but watch with fascination at the never ending stream of people entering the venue in the distance. About half an hour later the logos disappeared and the yellow background dimmed, leaving the crowd in darkness. The time had finally come to see the Rolling Stones.
The stage remained dark as a thundering and instantly recognisable beat struck through the arena, shortly followed by an equally recognisable piano chord progression and a repeated ‘woo-woo’ until the man himself, Mick Jagger, strutted on stage in true Mick style with an over-the-top red-feathered robe and more swagger than most frontmen 50 years younger than him. He began with the fitting opening lyric to Sympathy For The Devil before the rest of the band emerged, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The anticipation was now over, the band had already proven that they still sound as brilliant as ever. It was time to sit back and enjoy the show.
The band kept the momentum going with a couple more Mick Taylor-era classics, It’s Only Rock n Roll and Tumbling Dice, both of which are songs the band are clearly comfortable playing and were able to ease the crowd in with nicely. It was during these two songs that I was most awe-struck; Mick’s vocals were as clear, convincing and in tune as ever, Keith and Ronnie were bouncing off each other with hooks and licks flying all over the place, and Watts’ drumming remained the integral backbone to the overall performance.
2016’s blues covers album Blue and Lonesome was the band’s first studio album in over 10 years, and as this is the first tour since the release of the album they quite rightly played the two singles from the album, Just Your Fool and Ride Em On Down, to give the album publicity. From the band’s perspective it must have also been refreshing to play songs they hadn’t played a thousand times before. The band recorded the album live, and so the studio version of the songs transitioned nicely to the stage.
After Under My Thumb the Stones played the ‘request song’. With over 30 studio albums and 120 singles, it’s an impossible task for the band to play a set that doesn’t miss out a fan favourite. So for this tour, the band have been giving the fans the opportunity to vote for the song that they’d like to see live at the concert. We were given a choice of four songs, and the four for this show were She’s A Rainbow, Dead Flowers, Shine a Light, and Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker). Dead Flowers is my all time favourite Rolling Stones song, so I of course voted for that, but all four songs are fantastic so I wasn’t disappointed when She’s A Rainbow won the vote.
After a few more hits – You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with a live french hornist), Paint It Black and Miss You – Mick Jagger took a well-earned mid-set break and Keith soaked up all the attention for the next 15 minutes. He started off with Exile on Main Street’s Happy, which sounded fantastic even with Keith on vocals, but for Slipping Away, the final track from they 1989 album Steel Wheels, his voice sounded quite strained and it was the first and only time during the set that I was looking forward to the song ending.
Mick returned full of energy and with a harmonica in his hand as they broke into a 15-minute rendition of Midnight Rambler, which involved a lot of crowd participation and a long and powerful finish. The rest of the set was pure gold, 45 minutes of magic that the whole crowd hoped would never end. First was Honky Tonk Woman, followed by Street Fighting Man, then Start Me Up, Brown Sugar and Satisfaction, before returning on stage for Gimme Shelter and the perfect closer – Jumping’ Jack Flash.
I learned a lot about live music after this concert, particularly that you should never be afraid to travel for a concert. There are so many things to think about, so many things that could potentially go wrong when travelling overseas for a gig – flights, accommodation, travel to and from the venue, correct ID, money – but this experience proved that you can do it, and you can do it without any of those things going wrong. It wasn’t tiring, it wasn’t strenuous, it was an incredible journey from start to finish, and one that I would recommend everyone tries at least once.
As for the Rolling Stones, well, they are without doubt the most inspiring band in existence. They have a fascinating and rich history spanning more than 50 years, full of rifts, controversies, personality clashes, and when it comes to their live shows they are still able to put their differences aside. They put in 100% to their performance and it made for an unforgettable experience.