So. Actual rock gods The Rolling Stones are in the studio recording new material when they get stuck. They break into an off-the-cuff version of Little Walter’s Blue and Lonesome (luckily the engineer, unbidden, hits “record”) and have such a dashed good time with it that they decide to carry on in that vein and record a blues album. This they do, without the luxury of overdubs, in three days.
Since 1989’s Steel Wheels you’d hear of each new Rolling Stones album that it’s “their best in years” (usually qualified with that old chestnut: “their best since Exile on Main Street“). Well, it’s a no brainer this time that it is indeed their best in years – compilations aside, they haven’t released a studio album since the mostly-excellent A Bigger Bang twelve years ago.
Blue & Lonesome is an outstanding album of raucous, unpolished takes on various Chicago blues numbers. They make no attempt to ape the originals – why would they? They’re the fucking Rolling Stones. Pioneers of the British Blues Boom, as important to British blues as Howlin’ Wolf et al. were to Chicago’s. Honest to goodness legends and the grand old men of the scene – older by a distance than the originators of these songs were at the time of the original recordings.
Long past the stage as musicians where their idiosyncrasies first coalesced into their signature styles, the aural nastiness that seemed to have entered the band’s DNA by the mid-’70s is on full display here, most obviously in Keith Richard’s loose-limbed rhythm and gnarly as-and-when leads but also the aggressive snarl and sneer of Mick Jagger’s lead-guitaresque harmonica. His vocals too, tempered by age, are better here than ever, so much so that you don’t even miss what is usually a Stones album highlight – Keith doesn’t take a lead vocal on this one. Ronnie Wood’s playing, always more conventional than Keith’s, still has a “broken bottle” edge to it while Charlie Watt’s drumming, of course, remains the bedrock. Stalwarts of the Stones’ touring band, Darryl Jones and Chuck Leavell add a little session player sheen (though even that’s been scuffed up over the last few decades on the road), while Eric Clapton is press-ganged from his own sessions in an adjoining studio to supply some pleasingly rough-and-ready slide on Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and more expectedly fluid leads on I Can’t Quit You Baby.
The Stones always had more of an affinity with the likes of the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands than most of the British Blues Boomers who followed. The Mayall and Yardbirds schools were all about extended soloing and Freddie King worship but the Stones were more akin to that Willie Johnson/Hubert Sumlin approach. Nowadays I think it’s the “alt.” side of blues that has more in common with those players and the Stones today are closer in attitude and execution to that than the “purists” (thankfully), here filtering the spirit of the original performances through post-British blues, post-rock’n’roll and over half a century of living the life. Of course, I’m sure in time we’ll see a few pelters aimed at this album from the blues-nazis … oh well. Mangy old corgis nipping at the ankles of an oblivious silverback gorilla.
The twelve songs here are well chosen, culled from the the catalogues of Wolf, Waters, Eddie Taylor and others. Only two really qualify as obvious blues standards – quality renditions of Wolf’s Commit a Crime (memorably covered already by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Groundhogs) and Otis Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby (probably best known in its Led Zeppelin incarnation though I sneakily prefer John Mayall’s version and the belting, late-career Gary Moore take). The remaining ten cuts will likely be new territory for the casual listener. There’s at least a couple I was only dimly aware of (not being the biggest fan of, say, Magic Sam or Little Walter) and I was completely unfamiliar with one of the album’s highlights, Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and its originator, Little Johnny Taylor. I look forward to rectifying that. The album really is almost uniformly cracking but other highlights, if I had to choose, include Lightnin’ Slim’s Hoodoo Blues and Blue and Lonesome – that surreptitiously recorded one-take catalyst left here untouched. It’s got a bruised grandeur all its own while threatening to fall apart at any second.
Jagger/Richards is among the great songwriting teams and although it’s been a long time since they last reached the social significance of their late ’60s/early ’70s heyday, they have continued to write excellent songs, most recently with the 2012’s Doom and Gloom. Also, they do rootsy ballads like no-one else and I might have hoped for some of that on Blue & Lonesome. So it’s hard to entirely ignore the fact that this is a covers album and, time will tell, but I’m not sure it will be regarded as a truly great Stones album with that lack of original material. After all, I can’t imagine that too many serious “best of the Stones” lists would include their first couple of covers-heavy releases. They were significant in that they were the starting point for the British Blues Boom, but not great albums in the way that Let It Bleed, or Beggars Banquet or … yeah, okay, Exile were. Not even close. The obvious comparison to the new one is their debut, The Rolling Stones, as it’s arguably their only other all-blues release and features just a handful of (unremarkable) originals. It’s a more than worthy listen – and it would be tough work to ignore the pleasures of Route 66, Carol etc. but for me Blue & Lonesome is the better bet. I’d rather be listening to old masters with those gloriously idiosyncratic styles and nothing to prove than to an ambitious, inexperienced young band finding its feet. Plus the sound of Blue & Lonesome is grittier, with a much harder edge than on the early mono recordings – a near-perfect piece of production by Don Was & the Glimmer Twins.
At forty-three minutes or so, the album seems to have been recorded with vinyl in mind (the band having been guilty in the past of over-egging their latter day CD releases with bloated running times). Unfortunately the mystifying decision was made to split it over two records, making the vinyl release unnecessarily expensive. There’s also a deluxe version of the CD, boxed with a book and so on, which is more expensive still. So, standard CD it is. Disappointing cover design aside, it’s a nice piece of kit, coming in a three-panel digipak with a booklet featuring sleeve notes in the form of an interview with Don Was and quotes from the band with some cool photographs. Crucially, it also contains background information on each song, giving the listener a jump start on checking out the originals.
Worse case scenario, history will view Blue & Lonesome as an engaging footnote to an illustrious career. Best case? It could just prove to be the Stones’ American Recordings.