LONDON - The Rolling Stones made a triumphant return to the London stage on Sunday night in the first of five concerts to mark the 50th anniversary of their debut as an American-oriented blues band.
They showed no signs of wear and tear — except on their aging, heavily lined faces — as frontman Mick Jagger swaggered and strutted through a stellar two-and-a-half hour show. He looked remarkably trim and fit and was in top vocal form.
The Stones passed the half-century mark in style at the sometimes emotional gig that saw former bassist Bill Wyman and guitar master Mick Taylor join their old mates in front of a packed crowd at London's 02 Arena.
It was the first of five mega-shows to mark the passage of 50 years since the band first appeared in a small London pub determined to pay homage to the masters of American blues.
Jagger, in skin-tight black pants, a black shirt and a sparkly tie, took time out from singing to thank the crowd for its loyalty.
"It's amazing that we're still doing this, and it's amazing that you're still buying our records and coming to our shows," he said. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Lead guitarist Keith Richards, whose survival has surprised many who thought he would succumb to drugs and drink, was blunter: "We made it," he said. "I'm happy to see you. I'm happy to see anybody."
But the band's fiery music was no joke, fuelled by an incandescent guest appearance by Taylor, who played lead guitar on a stunning extended version of the ominous "Midnight Rambler," and Mary J. Blige, who shook the house in a duet with Jagger on "Gimme Shelter."
The 50th anniversary show, which will be followed by one more in London, then three in the greater New York area, lacked some of the band's customary bravado — the "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band" intro was shelved — and there were some rare nostalgic touches.
Even the famously taciturn Wyman briefly cracked a smile when trading quips with Richards and Ronnie Wood.
The concert started with a brief video tribute from luminaries like Elton John, Iggy Pop and Johnny Depp, who praised the Stones for their audacity and staying power. The Stones' show contained an extended video homage to the American trailblazers who shaped their music: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and others. The montage included rare footage of the young Elvis Presley.
The Stones began their professional career imitating the Americans whose music they cherished, but they quickly developed their own style, spawning hundreds — make that thousands — of imitators who have tried in vain to match their swagger and style.
The concert began with some early Stones' numbers that are rarely heard in concert, including the band's cover of the Lennon-McCartney rocker "I Wanna Be Your Man" and the Stones original "It's All Over Now."
They didn't shy away from their darker numbers, including "Paint It Black" and "Sympathy for the Devil" — Jagger started that one wearing a black, purple-lined faux fur cape that conjured up his late '60s satanic image.
He even cracked a joke about one of the band's low points, telling the audience it was in for a treat: "We're going to play the entire "Satanic Majesty's Request" album now," he said, referring to one of the band's least-loved efforts, a psychedelic travesty that has been largely, mercifully, forgotten.
He didn't make good on his threat.
He also made fun of the sky-high ticket prices, which had exposed the band to some criticism in the London press.
"How are you doing up in the cheap seats," he said, motioning to fans in the upper rows of the cavernous 02 Arena. "Except they're not cheap seats, that's the problem."
But Jagger seemed more mellow than usual, chatting a bit about the good old days and asking if there was anyone in the crowd who had seen them in 1962, when they first took to the stage.
He said 2012 had been a terrific year for Britain and that the Stones nearly missed the boat, playing no role in the celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the London Olympics, or the new James Bond film.
"We just got in under the wire," he said. "We feel pretty good."