Saturday, December 24, 2016


While the Stones have written and created some of the greatest songs in the rock and roll canon, it's always been true that if you want to hear the heart and soul of the band, it's when they play the blues. Formed as a strict blues group covering Chicago-style electric acts, they started out playing Little Red Rooster and the like, and returned many times to the well along the way. Even the group's debut had already seen them moving into more popular R'n'B sounds by Motown and Stax artists, as well as their own early writing attempts. Now, fifty-plus years later, they have finally done a full blues set.

It came about by accident, as the group was in the studio trying to work on new material, and had hit a roadblock. They decided to do a blues just to get back on track, playing Little Walter's 1959 cut, Blue and Lonesome, a group favourite. Wisely, taped was rolled, and an often-discussed but never attempted full blues album was suddenly on the way. Three days later, it was done, the core four joined by longtime auxiliary members Darryl Jones on bass, and Matt Clifford and Chuck Leavell on keys. Eric Clapton was working in the next studio, and came over to play on two cuts on the second day, and that was it. Instead of struggling to come up with something to interest the fickle modern music buyers, new cuts that could compete with the group's hallowed history, they did the one thing they could do with ease, better than anyone; just play the blues.

This isn't the same old Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters material that everyone has done to death. The Stones show just how deep their knowledge and love goes, able to call up obscure b-sides and non-hits by some of the best, largely forgotten but always great music. There are four Little Walter cuts, including the title track, a couple of Howlin' Wolf numbers, ones by Jimmy Reed, Magic Sam and the likes of Eddie Taylor and Little Johnny Taylor. The one cut that is well-known, Otis Rush's I Can't Quit You Baby, was probably picked to give Clapton something he knew to join in on. They were done quickly, without time to work out parts and overdubs, but to capture the real music, and that's been done with flying colours. There's nothing about this album that sounds contrived. These are not overfed, over-drugged rock stars, but rather incredibly hard-working musicians, huge fans of the songs and style, and players with invaluable experience, pouring all they have into the sessions.

You can easily imagine Charlie Watts shining here, with his great feel and huge sound, and of course Keith Richards and Ron Wood lock in provide excellent leads and rhythm. I'd argue the guitar work on Wolf's Just Like I Treat You is some of the best laid down on a Stones cut, ever. But the most surprising turn comes from Jagger, and not just his fully-engaged and strong vocals. It turns out to be a harmonica album, with the quartet of Little Walter cuts, and Jagger adding significant parts to all the others. His playing in recent years has been incendiary in concert, and now he gets to show just how much of a master he has become over the years. It dominates many of the songs, as the main solo instrument over the guitars, and producer Don Was lets the harp sound cut through louder and sharper than anything else. These are harmonica songs after all, or become them in this setting, and the rock star is replaced by the consummate bluesman, transforming the band.

Blues is all about experience, and perhaps The Rolling Stones, didn't want to, or couldn't have made this album until they got to this point, where they could stand with Wolf and Waters and Reed and Willie Dixon, and make it sound absolutely as good as the originators. It took them six or seven years to become the greatest rock and roll band in the world, but almost six decades to become the best blues band.

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