You're looking at your watch, consulting the set list from a recent Fleetwood Mac gig in Dublin and thinking: it has to happen soon. We're running out of songs.
But we're 20-odd tunes into the first of the band's three-night London run and the icing on the cake made of soap has not materialised. We've endured Mick Fleetwood's mammoth drum solo on World Turning, one that has lasted eight minutes at previous stops on this world tour. Tonight it clocks in at four. We've had Don't Stop, one of this outlandishly successful band's most galumphing hits, the song where you assumed It Would Happen. But no. The Mac have gone off, and come back, and Stevie Nicks is trilling Silver Springs, and there is no sign of the return of the second of Fleetwood Mac's two Macs. That Mac is not back.
One of the major draws of these gigs – their first in the UK since 2009 – has been the rumour that Christine McVie might appear as a special guest. The Birmingham melodicist retired from the band in 1998, technically for the second time, citing a fear of flying. Touring with her ex-husband, bassist John McVie, and weariness of the long-running dramas of her band might well have been contributing factors.
But the USP of this umpteenth Fleetwood Mac reunion is that everyone is getting along quite swimmingly. Indeed this Gordian sexual knot of a group have long since put their libidos and coke habits behind them, and tonight are even mining the residues of the chemistry for laughs (and sniffles). Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, the California duo who joined the blues-rock outfit in 1974 and turned it into gold dust, are holding hands, hugging at the end of Sara, and singing at one another. Mick Fleetwood – an increasingly jester-like figure, sitting worryingly near a gong – affectionately clasps hands with Nicks at the end of one song. Their affair in 1977 complicated an already star-crossed love polygon that has defined this band as much as their mellifluous soft rock.
Still, despite all the lovely closure, Christine does not show (although she does the following night). Anyone hoping to hear Little Lies, or the barbed You Make Loving Fun (written about Christine McVie's relationship with the band's lighting guy), or even Hold Me, the band's later-period US hit about another McVie conquest, Dennis Wilson, is going home a little disappointed tonight.
Probably not by much though. This nearly three-hour set is nothing if not generous value, packing in significant swaths of Rumours, the band's most famous album. It has sold something like 40m copies, a figure that, in all likelihood, no one album released in the 21st century will ever match. Its reissue entered the UK charts at No 3 last February. Of its vast riches, Go Your Own Way remains a sulky gem. It ends the band's first set with Buckingham mock-chasing Nicks around the stage and letting the front rows paw at his guitar.
It's salutary to be reminded what a fine player Lindsey Buckingham is. He's lithe and leather-jacketed, full of thoughtful song preambles. Hearing him playing Big Love solo – hollering the words, plucking at his hollow-bodied electric – is one of the unexpected highlights of a set that can sometimes feel like a rewrite of history.
It seems unthinkable now, but there was a time when not everyone thought Fleetwood Mac were cool, or survivors, or ripe for homage by Haim or Florence and the Machine. Indeed, if you were alive in the 1980s, Fleetwood Mac were the grown-ups' music, and as such as attractive as uncooked liver. Mac songs seemed pat, mid-tempo affairs with needless, false harmonies. (They all hated each other!) It wasn't just a question of age – the Rolling Stones were old – it was that Fleetwood Mac's music felt fluffy and smug. At least it did from the vehement hauteur of the spiky, directional 80s.
Now, though, 30 years on, one of their newer songs, Sad Angel, is pacier than you'd imagine. And there is widespread respect for Fleetwood Mac's awkward, angry Tusk album of 1979. Tonight the title track exudes bitterness, evil laughter and deranged keyboard horns: there is nothing pat about it.
Arguably it was Courtney Love who first rehabilitated Fleetwood Mac – or at least Stevie Nicks – thanking "Rhiannon the Welsh Witch" on the sleeve of Hole's Pretty on the Inside album (1991), and often declaring Nicks her hero. At the O2 Nicks recalls being Buckingham's "hippie girlfriend", accepted into the Mac package when Fleetwood hired Buckingham.
She is the sort of woman who paints angels, and wants to set Welsh epic The Mabinogion on the screen with the help of the Game of Thrones creator, but down to earth with it. Tonight her buddy Christine may not be here, but Nicks's throaty husk sounds masterful on Gold Dust Woman. And – living up to billing quite spectacularly – she has a different shawl for nearly every song.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010