Saturday, December 10, 2016

CD Review: The Rolling Stones' Blue & Lonesome (2016)

The Rolling Stones' Blue & Lonesome
Funny story, but true…speaking with legendary Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover last year, the conversation turned to blues music, a subject which really lit a fire under the veteran rocker. He spoke of seeing first gen British bluesmen like Alexis Korner and John Mayall play in London back in the early ‘60s, and how the audience was typically made up of other musicians. Glover told us that the earliest version of the Rolling Stones would sometimes open for Korner – Mick Jagger had previously performed with Korner’s Blues Unlimited band, as had Keith Richards and Charlie Watts – and that the primal Stones were, in a word, ‘awful.’ Glover said that the band went away for a couple of months and, when they returned, they were a thousand times better.

They’d transformed themselves into a live R&B powerhouse in a very short time and the rest, as they say, is history. Glover didn’t come right out and say that they’d made a Robert Johnson styled deal in exchange for their newfound abilities, but clearly something was afoot. That the Stones have blues as part of their musical DNA is no secret – the band’s founding mythology is based on a chance meeting by former classmates Jagger and Richards, the two bonding over the R&B records Jagger was carrying. The Stones’ early albums were littered with covers of Chicago blues and Chess Records artists like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Jimmy Reed, but in 50+ years, they’d never made a straight up blues LP until Blue & Lonesome.

The Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome

As the story goes, the Stones were trying to get a feel for a new recording studio and started jamming on Chicago blues giant Little Walter’s “Blue & Lonesome” and it just felt right. More blues covers poured out of the band and, within three days, they’d recorded Blue & Lonesome – an album of classic blues tunes performed spontaneously, live in the studio. The band’s first new album in eight years (since 2005’s lukewarm A Bigger Bang), and only their second of the past two decades, Blue & Lonesome captures the band at their rowdy best, these clearly inspired performances resulting in what is, arguably, the best Rolling Stones album since 1978’s Some Girls.

The band delves deep into the Chicago blues songbook for the project, which makes perfect sense as it was their original inspiration, pulling out minor R&B chart hits and blues obscurities alike. Harmonica wizard ‘Little’ Walter Jacobs is represented by four of the twelve tracks here, every one of ‘em a slab of molten steel. Jagger provides the title track with what is possibly his best vocal performance in years, masterfully channeling the song’s built-in pathos, the emotional lyrics punctuated by Jagger’s icy harp and Richards’ haunting fretwork. The album-opening “Just Your Fool” has just the right amount of rhythm-driven vamp, Jagger providing the flash with his fluid, soulful vocals and raucous, swinging harmonica while Chuck Leavell adds some jaunty piano in the background as the six-string tandem of Richards and Ron Wood rock the house.

The Stones draw upon more than just Little Walter for inspiration on Blue & Lonesome, however…you can’t pay tribute to the Chicago blues without a little Howlin’ Wolf, and they knock out red-hot covers of a pair of Wolf tunes, beginning with the feral “Commit A Crime.” Jagger is a far different vocalist than the mighty Wolf, and to his credit he doesn’t even try to imitate the bluesman’s growling vocal style. Instead, Jagger goes over the top with both his jagged vox and jumpin’ harmonica jive while the band lays down the fiercest groove to be heard since Hubert Sumlin first plugged into his amp (kids, look it up…). The other Wolf cover, “Just Like I Treat You,” is a Willie Dixon-penned gem more in the Chicago tradition with a choogling rhythm track and the twin piano-pounding of Leavell and Matt Clifford hiding behind Richards’ nimble guitarplay.

The Stones honor guitarist Jimmy Reed with a haunting cover of his 1957 Top 10 R&B chart hit “Little Rain.” A slow-burning ballad, Jagger’s vocals are appropriately tortured, his mournful harp playing matched by shimmering, atmospheric instrumentation that blankets the lyrics like morning fog on a kudzu vine. The band doesn’t forget the “West Side” of Chicago, either, honoring the great guitarists Otis Rush and “Magic” Sam Maghett with covers of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “All of Your Love,” respectively. The former is a Dixon-penned treasure that features Jagger’s fine, emotionally-fraught vox and Richards’ rattling fretwork while the latter is an unsuccessful 1957 single that would go on to become a blues standard, infused here with a menacing, electric vibe and hypnotic instrumentation. Noticeable by his absence are any covers of the great Muddy Waters, who provided the Stones with their name lo those many years ago.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Blue & Lonesome is a fine, entertaining collection, but I have a minor gripe with the disingenuous and/or uninformed hype surrounding the album’s release. In the album’s liner notes, Jagger states that the band is “taking the blues forward and hopefully introducing them to a whole new generation of fans.” Amateur rockcrits have tripped over their adjectives in praising the Stones’ effort as some sort of rediscovery of the blues. Just what audience does Mick think that the Stones are selling to these days? I don’t see a lot of young Beyonce fans getting turned onto the blues by this record, no matter Jagger’s best intentions. The largest portion of the band’s audience is aging greybeards like myself.

As for the genre of the blues itself, it doesn’t need rejuvenation by the Stones’ current embrace of their roots. Talented artists like Walter Trout, Shemekia Copeland, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Joe Louis Walker, and the great Buddy Guy, to name but a few, have been keeping the blues flame burning bright for decades now, creating new fans with their tireless touring and genre-stretching recordings. None of which belittles the Stones’ efforts here – Jagger’s vocals are stronger and more involved than they’ve been in years, and his harp playing is both raunchy and nuanced, as the occasion requires.

Richards’ and Wood’s guitars snap, rattle, and croon in the spirit of great bluesmen like Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers while the rhythm section of drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Daryl Jones dig a trench-like groove deep enough to drive a semi through. As a result, Blue & Lonesome is a good – tho’ not great – Rolling Stones record, but it’s also the most joyous, inspired, and freshest-sounding music they’ve made in decades. Grade: B+ (Interscope Records, released December 2, 2016)

Buy the CD from The Rolling Stones' Blue & Lonesome

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