Thursday, May 12, 2011



Who is Stu? It's Ian Stewart, a founding member of The Rolling Stones, their long-time road manager and pianist, who died in 1985. He played on many studio tracks and concert tours, and famously Keith Richards has long said the Stones were Ian Stewart's band, that he was working for him. He wasn't a hanger-on either; a versatile boogie woogie-style player, Stewart can be heard on George Thorogood's Bad To The Bone album, fronted his own Rocket 88 band, and was the inspiration for Led Zeppelin's Boogie With Stu.

Who is Ben Waters? The younger man was inspired by Stewart through family friends and connections to the music scene, and eventually replaced him in Rocket 88. When he started this tribute album, it was simply a solo project, but then his friend Charlie Watts offered to play. That opened the floodgates, as more and more friends and stars volunteered their services. Ronnie ("Stu was my best mate") came on, and soon word got out to the rest of the Stones camp, who all wanted to add a bit. Eventually it was announced that for the first time since 1992, Bill Wyman would rejoin his bandmates on a track on the disc in honour of Stewart.

Well, not everything is what it's cracked up to be, and in these days of advanced technology, there was no physical reunion between the estranged stones. Each one recorded their parts at different times, and even on different continents. The song is Bob Dylan's Watching The River Flow, and truthfully the contributions from Wood, Richards and Wyman are minimal. But Mick Jagger turns in a stellar vocal and harp solo, and it truly is one of the great covers in the Stones canon now, thanks to fine piano from Waters as well.

The rest of the disc won't eclipse the headlines of the Stones' involvement. Unless you're a junkie for raw boogie-blues piano, as Stewart was and Watters is, you're not going to be jumping out of your seat to replay cuts. As most tributes go, it's the guest stars that make things interesting, if not exactly grand. Jools Holland, England's other great boogie pianist, takes a turn singing as well, on the old number Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, reminding us all why he was the 3rd-best singer in Squeeze. Waters was really in no position to refuse Richards and Wood a turn at the mic either, and their singing cut Worried Life Blues makes Holland's vocal a sweet treat. Oddly enough, it's PJ Harvey who provides the stand-out vocal, as luckily her parents were dear friends of Stewart and she knew him well. Her vocals and sax on Lonely Avenue explain where the blues in her music comes from.

Tribute and charity albums are always a dicey proposition, once the stars collide with it. I think the tracks Waters recorded on his own would probably have been better with lesser lights involved, apart from Jagger and Harvey's vocals, and Watts' typically stellar drumming throughout. But with the stars, you'd never have heard about this album, or Ben Waters, or maybe even Ian Stewart ever again. If you feel like supporting the Heart Foundation, and having this cool version of Watching The River Flow, go for it.

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