As far as rock ballads go, ‘Wild Horses’ is about as close to the gold standard as you can get. Representing The Rolling Stones at the perfect nexus between their country leanings and bluesy roots, the slow-burning song has a certain bittersweet quality to it: so pretty, and yet so noticeably melancholy.
The Stones are never at a loss when it comes to ballads. From the earliest days of ‘When Tears Go By’ to the late-period lament of ‘Slipping Away’, the world’s most dangerous rock band has never been afraid of going a bit soft when the time is right. They even have different levels of balladry – from the aching acoustic sting of ‘Angie’ to the more uptempo and heartfelt leanings of ‘Beast of Burden’, the Stones truly have a ballad for all occasions.
But there’s something different about ‘Wild Horses’. It feels a bit grander, and bit more weighty than the rest. It’s timeless in a way that never feels schmaltzy or overblown, as some of the other ballads inevitably do. It’s always a fine line to balance in slower songs between emotional punch and overwrought histrionics, and ‘Wild Horses’ just seems to toe that line better than the rest.
It’s a bit surprising, then, that the song hasn’t become more of a live favourite. Of the more than two thousand concerts played by the Stones over their 60-year career, ‘Wild Horses’ has only been played 151 times, making it only their 40th most frequently performed song. Sure, the band had played hundreds of concerts before the song was released on Sticky Fingers in 1971, but that’s also true of tracks like ‘Rock and a Hard Place’, ‘Star Star’, and ‘Miss You’, all of which came out later and have more concert plays.
Maybe they just feel like they need to save it for the right occasion. They’ve gone years without playing ‘Wild Horses’, but will usually bust it out when the cameras are on them. That’s what happened when the Stones headlined Glastonbury in 2013, and that’s what happened when Florence + the Machine opened for the band at London Stadium during their homecoming stop on the No Filter tour in May of 2018.
The track somehow becomes even more haunting and longing when it’s turned into a duet. Or maybe that’s just the effect that Florence Welch has on a song. When it comes to sweeping theatricality, Welch is the go-to singer to project that kind of operatic drama. But Welch keeps it fairly restrained, opting to accompany rather than blow anyone off the stage. It makes for a wonderfully fresh reading of a tried and true classic.
Check out the performance of ‘Wild Horses’ down below.