The unstoppable Stones take Germany by storm and prove themselves the greatest rock'n'roll band on the planet

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The Rolling Stones

MUNICH OLYMPIAHALLE

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 4, 2003

The first time Keith Richards appears on the giant video screen at the back of the Olympiahalle stage, people around me jump, like they’ve just been frightened by something looming unexpectedly out of a cupboard in a horror film. And you’ve got to admit, he does look like something that would be hard to kill in a John Carpenter movie, the kind of apparently indestructible life form that no amount of shooting, stabbing, burning or poking in the eye with a coat-hanger will bring to a halt, unstoppable in other words. Keith, up there, a face carved out of Delta loam, chipped house-brick and fused alabaster, looks like he’d keep coming at you whatever you threw at him?undead, determined to stay that way. A bit like the Stones themselves, astonishing survivors of the rock’n’roll wars, veterans of everything.

Tonight is the start of the European leg of the Stones’ marathon 40th anniversary Licks tour and, by their own standards, I suppose this is a genuinely stripped-down sort of show. A couple of nights later, they play the Olympic stadium and you can bet the fucking farm the pyrotechnics will be deployed in typically spectacular force. Here in the 12,000-capacity Olympiahalle, there are no great distractions. No giant inflatables, dirigibles, cherry pickers, fireworks?just the Stones, really, and their music. Which is all, in the end, you could ever ask for.

Anyway, it starts with a wonderful bit of rock’n’roll theatre. When the lights go out and we’re plunged into an elemental darkness, we sit and listen, hackles rising, to an introductory tape that sounds like an amped-up soundtrack to a March Of Time newsreel, stirring and anticipatory. This goes on for a while. Then two things happen at once, everyone taken by surprise. A guitar riff rips through the hall and a spotlight hits the stage and the only man on it. It’s Keith, hunched over his guitar, cranking out the fearsome opening chords of “Street Fighting Man”. Jaws drop, even as the stage explodes in light and Jagger’s immortal, slovenly drawl?”Eeev’ree whea a’heah th’sown of ma’chin’ cha’gin’ feeeat, boyyyys…”?rises above the resultant clamour, the crowd’s roar. It’s a fucking incredible couple of minutes, and gets better, the Stones completing a stunning opening salvo with a pugnacious “It’s Only Rock’N’Roll”, “If You Can’t Rock Me”, “Don’t Stop”, one of the new songs included on the 40 Licks compilation, and a raucous “Heartbreaker”.

Further highlights? Everything, really?starting with the quartet of songs from tonight’s featured album, Let It Bleed. There’s an unreasonably lovely “Love In Vain”, with Ronnie on lap-steel, bruising versions of “Live With Me” and “Monkey Man”, and a raw and sprawling “Midnight Rambler”, which features one of those prowling Keith guitar solos that builds out of nothing into an entirely ominous squall. The racket he’s making goes into overdrive when the strobes kick in and the song lurches into a chaotic free-for-all, with Jagger’s angry harmonica blasts blowing ragged holes in the walls of guitars.

Elsewhere, there’s a wild “Tumblin’ Dice”, after which Keith virtually steals the entire show with a solo spot that includes a cracked and weary “Slipping Away”, his gorgeous soul ballad from Steel Wheels, and a fine “Before They Make Me Run”. A vicious “Start Me Up” gives way to a truly unforgettable “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”, the main set ending with “Honky Tonk Women” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. There’s great excitement then, with the band’s appearance on a small stage towards the rear of the arena floor, where they play a short set that climaxes with a jittery “Neighbours” and a flat-out brilliant “Brown Sugar”. Back on the main stage, an untrammelled “Satisfaction” is the only encore.

After 40 years of doing what they do, everyone seems to be taking it for granted that this is the final time around for the Stones?on this scale, at least. If it is, they are not leaving the building quietly. True to who they have been these many years, they are kicking up a hell of a storm on their way out. Tonight is a swashbuckling triumph, part of an epic last hurrah from the greatest rock’n’roll group in the world. Incredible.