LONDON -- The verdict is in: The Rolling Stones are back. They may look old, but they still sound young.
That was the consensus Monday as Britain's rock critics responded to the Stones 50th anniversary bash Sunday night, the first of five shows to commemorate their half century of rhythm and blues-tinged rock. It was the band's first London performance in five years, and their own advancing years had led some to be skeptical that they could still perform at the highest level.
They were led by the seemingly ageless Mick Jagger, whose strutting style has not been dimmed, and backed by brilliant guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood and the energetic drumming of Charlie Watts, who is now past 70 but shows no sign of slowing down. There was a stunning guest appearance by former Stone Mick Taylor, who stole the show during a searing performance of "Midnight Rambler" and a brief visit from former bassist Bill Wyman.
The Daily Mail's Jan Moir said the Stones had somehow beaten the aging process: "You might imagine that they had been worn down by life, by wives, by arthritis, by scandals old and new, by drugs, but no -- they seemed indestructible." She said their swampy, gritty sound remains unique after half a century.
Daily Telegraph reviewer Neil McCormick said the band exceeded all expectations. He described the weaving of the guitarists, mixed with Jagger's blues harmonica, as a wonder.
"When looking for the secret of the Stones, it is perhaps that they actually listen to each other while they play, and almost lose themselves in it, while their brilliant frontman keeps it all together," he wrote.
Ebullient fans agreed with this assessment, as did the Guardian newspaper, which gave the performance four out of five stars.
Jagger, in skin-tight black pants, a sparkly tie and a matching checked jacket and hat, 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 strong guest appearances by Taylor, and Mary J. Blige, who shook the house in a duet with Jagger on "Gimme Shelter," and Jeff Beck.
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.
The concert began with some early Stones' numbers rarely heard in concert, including the band's cover of the Lennon-McCartney rocker "I Wanna Be Your Man" and a cover of "It's All Over Now," written by Bobby Womack and Shirley Womack.
They didn't shy away from their darker numbers, including "Paint It Black" and "Sympathy for the Devil" -- Jagger started that one wearing a slightly silly 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 "Their 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.
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."