By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - The Rolling Stones pranced, swaggered and laughed through the first of five concerts, celebrating their golden jubilee with a performance that critics said helped justify high ticket costs.
Virtually every reviewer at the first of two shows in London's O2 Arena on Sunday night mentioned the controversy over high prices, but almost all of them said it was worth it.
The two-and-a-half hour set by one of the biggest acts in rock and roll history took a crowd of 20,000 on a trip down memory lane, opening with the 1963 "I Wanna Be Your Man" hit penned by Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney right up to "Doom and Gloom" which is only a few weeks old.
The rest of the 23-song setlist was classic Stones from "Gimme Shelter", "Wild Horses", "Honky Tonk Women" to "Start Me Up" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" rocking the crowd. The one surprising omission was "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction".
And, while the lines on their faces traced their advancing years and long careers of rock and roll hedonism, lead singer Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts on drums and Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood on guitar still delivered the goods.
"As Jagger left the stage, still jogging and shaking his maracas after two and a half hours and 23 songs, it was clear that even at these ticket prices, the Stones' 50th anniversary shows deliver value for money," wrote Mark Sutherland in a review for the Rolling Stone music magazine.
Jagger, whose lithe frame still allows for some of the trademark swagger at 69, sought to laugh off criticism of prices ranging from 95-950 pounds ($1,500) for a VIP seat.
"Everybody all right there in the cheap seats?" he asked as he looked up high to his left. "They're not really cheap though are they? That's the trouble."
The flamboyant veterans have defended the costs, saying the shows were expensive to put on. But specialist music publication Billboard reported the band would earn $25 million from the four shows initially announced. A fifth was added later.
"AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE"
The commercial side of the first Stones gigs for more than five years clearly rankled some.
The band which first hit the stage in July, 1962 at the Marquee Club on London's Oxford Street has issued a photo book, another greatest hits album and a documentary film to mark 50 years in business.
"There's something perversely admirable about the way the self-styled 'greatest rock'n'roll band in the world' seem openly intent on celebrating their golden jubilee by making as much money as possible with the absolute minimum of effort," wrote Alexis Petridis in the Guardian.
Yet he gave the performance four stars out of five as did Andy Gill of the Independent, who singled out some of the guest appearances for praise.
Mary J. Blige added fireworks to her duet with Jagger in "Gimme Shelter", while Jeff Beck provided the power chords for "I'm Going Down".
"So much fun performing in London w/ the @RollingStones! Congrats on your 50th anniversary!!," wrote Blige on Twitter.
But the biggest cheers were reserved for two former band members. Bill Wyman played "It's Only Rock'n'Roll" and "Honky Tonk Women", while Mick Taylor, who left the band in 1974 to be replaced by Wood, revelled in his chance to shine during "Midnight Rambler".
"Taylor can still play like a silver streak and the time-shifting blues jam of Midnight Rambler was incredible to behold, with Jagger as harp blowing blues conductor and three guitars tripping in and out of each other's space to hypnotic effect," wrote Neil McCormick in the Daily Telegraph.
In the critics' minds, the Stones have set the bar high for the next four performances - one more at the O2 Arena and three in the United States ending at the Newark Prudential Center on December 15.
The big question for fans, however, is where it all leads - a five-concert reunion and greatest hits record to celebrate 50 years, or a world tour and an album of more new material.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White)