There are surely few ways of ending the long Fourth of July weekend more ironic than by celebrating the British Invasion. But there the Rolling Stones were, England’s longest sustained occupiers of what began as an American art form — rock ’n’ roll — at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, as if in retaliation for the whole independence thing. Mick Jagger even took a wistful dig at the holiday (and the president), sighing, “If only the British had held onto the airports, the whole thing might have gone differently.”
Things were meant to go differently for the Stones as well; Sunday’s concert was rescheduled from June 8 due to Jagger’s heart valve procedure. But anyone who wasn’t scanning for some indication of the infirmity that forced the postponement very likely wouldn’t have found it, as the singer was slinky, wiry, and fully engaged. He strutted and preened throughout, and when he hit the words “gin-soaked” in the first line of “Honky Tonk Women,” his whole body undulated side-to-side like it was pure muscle memory.
But if the typical line on Jagger, even without health scares, is that no one can believe he’s still spry, the typical line on Keith Richards is that no one can believe he’s still alive. He certainly was a far less physical presence, and not just by comparison; it wasn’t until five songs in, on the electric blues of Jimmy Reed’s “Ride ’Em on Down,” that he so much as cracked a smile.
Even so, his playing remained as distinct as ever. The entire concert began with two crashing chords — the tonic followed by the IV, a Richards trademark — enough to send the Stones flying, right into “Street Fighting Man.” The guitarist knocked out cracking country licks on “Honky Tonk Women” and kicked off “It’s Only Rock ’N Roll (But I Like It)” with a Chuck Berry riff played on a red Gibson ES-355 (uncoincidentally Richards’s idol’s favored model). Ronnie Wood, meanwhile, continued being perhaps the only lead guitarist in rock history consistently overshadowed by his rhythm guitarist.
Even more imperturbable was Charlie Watts, his steady, impeccable drive still undimmed after all these years. He deftly guided the band through at least three different rhythms on “Midnight Rambler,” kept “She’s So Cold” sharp and sinuous at the same time, and swung hard on the blues numbers. And the rolling crest of drums that led the Stones out of the first chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was the first lift in a song that only kept lifting.
Armed with acoustic instruments on a satellite stage, the band played only two songs as its core quartet: “Play With Fire” downplayed its chamber-pop roots, while “Dead Flowers” took on a more upbeat Laurel Canyon feel. For all of the mythologizing of the Stones as a simple rock ’n’ roll outfit, though, they’ve long been far more expansive than that. Still, they didn’t try to shoehorn additional instruments into songs that didn’t need them, bringing them out only when necessary, like Karl Denson’s raunchy saxophone solo on “Brown Sugar” (complicating a song whose deliberate offense has only grown). And the slow-motion lightning ripple of “Gimme Shelter” was tightened by backup singer Sasha Allen’s fierce vocals as she stalked up the catwalk and faced Jagger down as an equal.
The Stones won’t be able to do this forever. Someday Jagger will give out, or Richards will, as unthinkable as the latter may be. But witnessing the show-closing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” dragged closer to Otis Redding’s cover than the Stones’ original by now, it was hard not to think they’re still going to try like hell.
The Rolling Stones
With Gary Clark Jr. At Gillette Stadium, Sunday
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.