It was only a few days before that I started hearing rumors. I had been scheduled for weeks to DJ a private party at the Belly Up - something I’ve done dozens of times - when I first got the text: “You hear about the Rolling Stones playing a secret show at the Belly Up?” I hadn’t. But I put in a call anyway and crossed my fingers. Nothing.
Days later, when the rumors were finally acknowledged on social media and radio, I was dumbfounded. How could this be possible? The ordinary had just become once-in-a-lifetime, and it had seemingly happened overnight.
I arrived on the scene at 5 p.m. And I say “scene” because that’s exactly what it was. With hundreds of people milling around outside the venue, Cedros Avenue looked more like a rock-n-roll street market than a beachside thoroughfare.
Local radio stations and news affiliates were on site and broadcasting live. There were people playing guitar, people outfitted in fan gear, and people who obviously showed up just to see what all the fuss was about. There was even one woman lugging around a bunch of vinyl hoping to get it signed.
And the crowd continued to grow despite repeated announcements that there wasn’t a single ticket available for sale. I loaded in my gear while an a capella group belted out a pretty decent rendition of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.”
While it wasn’t as crowded, inside the venue wasn’t any less hectic. Last minute preparations were being frantically executed and word was passed that the band would be arriving shortly to do sound check. What? The Stones don’t have their roadies do that? I saw Keith Richards walk in first, and it was at that moment it all started to really sink in - this was really happening.
Band management asked for the room to be cleared, but not before I saw Mr. Jagger walk in, hug his band mates, and joke around with them in a way that looked like old friends gathering for a lunch date. Even with the atypical sight of an extended stage and a steel barrier in the Belly Up, it was hard to process that the Rolling Stones were getting ready to play.
I was scheduled to DJ for two hours before show time, and started immediately after the band had checked. I tried to keep cool as the 9 p.m. scheduled start time loomed large.
And then it happened. My songs faded out, the lights went down, and the instantly recognizable intro to “Start Me Up” filled the venue. Like every other one of the 500 or so people there, it took me a minute to calibrate. And I remained in a bit of a punch-drunk stupor until Mick addressed the crowd.
“We played in San Diego to nearly 50,000 people on Sunday,” he quipped. “I think this is a bit smaller.”
Although the pure cultural magnitude of the occasion was probably enough for most in attendance, the band exceeded all expectations as they ripped through their 15-song set like it was one of their first. The crowd tried to keep up -- people clapped, sang, jumped and rejoiced for the entirety of the band’s 90 minutes on stage -- but they were no match for the legendary rock-n-roll veterans.
As the last notes of “Satisfaction” still hung in the air and the band walked off stage to well-deserved thunderous applause, I started my second two-hour stretch of the night.
It was difficult to concentrate as the magnitude of what just happened continued to wash over me.
At least right now, I can’t imagine any other shows comparing to the night I saw the Rolling Stones at The Belly Up.
Scott McDonald is a writer, on-air personality and consultant with 15 years of experience in the San Diego music scene. He has interviewed hundreds of artists, from the legendary to the underground, for print and television. Follow McDonald and his melodic musings on Twitter @eight24_ or Instagram @scotteight24. Send your music musts to email@example.com.