The crowd of celebrities, music industry insiders, and media folks that crammed into the New York City club Racket on Thursday evening had every reason to believe they were there to witness a Rolling Stones concert, but it was impossible to be sure at first. The invitation billed the event merely an an ‘Album Release Party’ timed to the release of Hackney Diamonds. We were told all phones and smart watches would be placed in pouches, and “armed guards” and “personal security” wouldn’t be allowed in. “Dress cool,” read the invite. “It’s a party!”
The party started with a DJ set by Questlove and Samantha Urbani as the VIP section slowly filled up with the likes of Elvis Costello, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Chris Rock. Rumours circulated all week the Stones were going to play a mini set. The stage was set up with their gear, but it felt like an impossible dream that the world’s biggest rock band were going to play a 600-seat club that has two nights of Ben Kweller and a Talking Heads tribute band on their calendar.
Then the lights dimmed after 10:00 pm, and the Stones indeed walked out into the tiny stage. The core band of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, bassist Darryl Jones, and drummer Steve Jordan were joined only by keyboardist Matt Clifford, and background vocalist Chanel Haynes. (Longtime keyboardist Chuck Leavell, backup singers Bernard Fowler and Sasha Allen, and horn players Karl Denson and Tim Ries were all AWOL for the evening.)
“How are you doing?” Jagger asked the crowd. “You having a good time? We’re going to play old! We’re going to play new!”
The band started with old by going back to 1978 with “Shattered,” a tribute to a far grimier New York than the one of today. This was the first Stones performance of any sort in over a year, and there were concerns in some quarters when a planned summer tour was scuttled without explanation. Tonight, however, there weren’t any signs of rust. Jagger was in pristine form as he glided across the narrow stage and belted out the tale of West Side rats and uptown bed bugs without even glancing at the teleprompter.
They followed it up with the live premieres of ‘Angry’ and ‘Whole Wide World.’ They’re two of the best songs off Hackney Diamonds, which is racking up reviews calling it their best album in decades. (Best since Steel Wheels? Undercover? Tattoo You even? We need a few more listens to be sure, but there’s no doubt that it’s shockingly great.) Both of the songs crackled with life on the stage.
“It always seems that we launch our new albums in New York,” Jagger said. “We’ve done it in a blimp [in 2002]. We’ve done it on a flatbed truck going down 5th Avenue [in 1975]. We did it in a convertible going over the Brooklyn Bridge [in 1997] and a train going into Grand Central [in 1989]. We were missing the launches so much that we had to make another album to come back and re-launch it.”
‘Tumblin’ Dice’ was up next, but the truncated band meant they couldn’t do the usual extended coda. It was instead a fast and dirty one, similar to the Exile on Main Street original. Chanel Haynes did a stellar job on the background vocals. Her only prior performance with the Stones took place in 2022 when they flew her to Milan last minute to sing “Gimme Shelter” when Sasha Allen had to miss a show. She was starring as Tina Turner on the West End stage at the time, and the producers fired her for missing a performance to make the gig. It seems like she made the right call because it got her back on the stage with the Stones at least one more time.
“This is the first club gig we’ve played in a long time in New York,” Jagger said when the song wrapped. “I used to come to this club when it was called the Highline. Then it was called Blow and then Powder. Anyway, it’s great to be here making a racket. We’re going to make a racket with his next one. It’s called ‘Bite My Head Off.’”
This is the Hackney Diamonds songs featuring Paul McCartney on bass. It would have been a truly historic moment to see him come out to guest with them on it, but the Beatle is in Australia on his own tour. They did just fine without him, playing the tune at a breakneck speed while Richards and Wood gleefully traded licks. “You think I’m your bitch?” Jagger roared. “I’m fucking with your brain!”
After band intros, Jagger told the crowd they’d be familiar with the next song. It was “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and witnessing it up close in a sweaty club as opposed to an 80,000-seat football stadiums was simply surreal. And even though they’ve played it 1,200 times over the past 55 years, more than any other song in their vast catalog, nothing about the performance felt even remotely rote.
They walked offstage at the end, returning after just about a minute for the live debut of “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” from Hackney Diamonds. Lady Gaga sings it with them on the record, and it was no surprise when she walked onto the Racket stage since she was watching the show from the wings all night. Wearing a red sequined jumpsuit, Gaga beamed with joy as she locked voices with Jagger and brought the gospel-tinged ballad to one soaring climax after another. “New York City, the Rolling Stones!” Gaga roared at the end. “Take a bow.”
It was an impossible moment to top. They didn’t even try. And even though they played a mere seven songs, and only three oldies, nobody walked out looking unhappy. This was the smallest venue the Stones have basically ever played in New York City, and likely the only gig they’re going to play anywhere this year. Everyone knew they’d just witnessed something historic.
The show sets up a stadium tour that’s very likely to head across America next summer. Let’s hope they break tradition and play more than just two or three Hackney Diamonds songs in the set. This isn’t another Voodoo Lounge or Bridges to Babylon. It’s not just a few decent songs and a lot of filler. This is a colossal achievement that nobody excepted from a group that started when JFK was president. They seemed on the verge of death many times in the past, and it’ll never be the same without Charlie Watts, but the Rolling Stones proved tonight that there’s at least one more great chapter to come before this whole saga wraps up.