The Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome (2016)

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.

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Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers: Genuine Houserocking Music (1982)

Released years after frontman Taylor’s death, Genuine House Rocking Music is made up from the copious extra material recorded during the sessions for the proto-alt.blues trio’s two original studio albums, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers and Natural Boogie.  Those are great releases but this holds up surprisingly well, raucous and raw as its predecessors and making for a worthy companion piece.  Even where the choice of material is uninspired (Crossroads), it works.  Highlights for me are the slow-but-gnarly Blue Guitar and a somewhat more frenetic run through Ray Charles’ What’d I Say.

If you’re new to Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, I’d point you at their great live set, Beware of the Dog (also released posthumously, though not by design) – one of the great blues albums – but you wouldn’t go far wrong if you happened across this one.  The tape was an inexpensive online find (though I think I was lucky there); the album’s still available on CD etc.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Hound Dog Taylor and The Houserockers

Hindu Love Gods: Hindu Love Gods (1990)

Imagine a world in which REM replaced Michael Stipe with Warren Zevon before going into the studio to record a bunch of covers that would end up forming one of the great alt.blues albums.  Can’t picture it?  Well, try harder.  Back in 1990, it totally happened.

I always find it at the very least weird just how few people remember this album.  Including me; I’d forgotten all about it, more or less, until I was working on Jim Dead’s Ten Fires album a few years ago and we were discussing what kind of studio sounds to aim for.  I kept coming back to Crazyhorse and this.  Perfect live-in-the-studio vibe, good and raw.

Ten tracks, all covers, drawing deep from the well of real Americana – classic blues (Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters etc.), folk (Woody Guthrie) and a couple of contemporary gems too.  Recorded for fun during a few drunken “off nights” while working on a ‘proper’ Zevon album, it flows perfectly.

The album kicks off with two Johnson numbers (Walking Blues and Travelling Riverside Blues) before blindsiding us with a stripped down, ragged take on Prince’s psych-pop classic Raspberry Beret.  Later Howlin’ Wolf’s Willie Dixon-penned Wang Dang Doodle is followed by a note-perfect Battleship Chains (known to me and most folks, I’d imagine, as a Georgia Satellites number).  The feel throughout is just what you’d expect from an REM-related project, bearing in mind this is before they were the mild-mannered mandolin botherers of Losing My Religion et al, and Peter Buck steps up for a few surprisingly Stonesy Americana-infused blues leads.  Guthrie’s Vigilante Man rounds things off, and it’s a perfect fit.

This album’s relative obscurity remains a mystery to me, particularly given the pedigree of its participants.  I picked up a copy of the tape in excellent nick for £3 (happily, by 1990 cassette packaging was competing on a more even playing field with other formats than previously, so it’s a long fold-out inlay with credits, photos and so on).  It looks like, out-with the used market, current availability is download only but second hand copies are easy to come by. 

However you can get your hands on it, you just should.  What a fucking album.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - Hindu Love Gods