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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ZZ Top: Fandango! (1975)

Following 1973’s Tres Hombres and released in 1975, Fandango! was ZZ Top’s fourth album. Again produced by Bill Hamm, here the 34 minute running time is divided between a live side and a studio side.   The studio cuts are a match for Tres Hombres in quality but the live element stops it quite equalling its predecessor’s status as a classic.

The three live tracks that make up the first side are good, rough and raw.  Kicking off with Texas Blues perennial Thunderbird (curiously credited to ZZ Top though it’s a Nightcaps cover) and Jailhouse Rock, it’s a covers-heavy set with the only originals a retread of Rio Grande Mud‘s Backdoor Love Affair and a new song Back Door Love Affair No. 2, both here in a medley with Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy and John Lee Hooker’s Long Distance Boogie.  These are enjoyable enough, hard rocking numbers but it’s all fairly heavy-handed, particularly in Backdoor Medley, and the overall effect is one of “you had to be there”.

The six track studio side, however, is a thing of wonder – it’s no mystery that half of the cuts here made it to 1977’s The Best Of ZZ Top. The side kicks off with the brilliantly titled Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings which is a perfect piece of ’70s rock.  Then there’s Blue Jean Blues.  One of the great electric blues ballads, its melancholy air serving as a backdrop for one of the finest blues leads you’ll hear.

Balinese offers up a slice of straightforward Southern rock before the loose-limbed Mexican Blackbird, with its killer slide and affectionately unromantic lyric  (“If you’re down in Acuna and you ain’t up to being alone/Don’t spend all your money on just any honey that’s grown/Go find the Mexican Blackbird and send all your troubles back home”).

Heard It On The X is a propulsive paean to the Mexican radio stations of the ’60s, all of which were known by call signs beginning with an X.  Tush is one of those songs that always seems to have been there (it was probably the Girlschool version I knew first). A stone cold classic.

The part live/part studio format isn’t one that’s easy to get right. ZZ Top tried it again in 1999 with the underrated XXX.  Cream did it in the ’60s with Wheels of Fire, though that was a double with one disc studio and one live; in the ’90s, both Sabbath and the Stones garnished live albums with a couple of studio cuts (Reunion and Flashpoint respectively) but the only other “half-and-half” release which really got it right, that I can think of, is Loudon Wainwright III’s Unrequited (released, like Fandango!, in 1975.  Maybe it was a thing).   The two types of performance and recording often don’t really gel and that’s the issue with Fandango!  The studio side is so damn good you can’t help but want more.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - ZZ Top: Fandango!

Original Warners paper labels issue, about £4 online.

ZZ Top: Tres Hombres (1973)

By 1973, ZZ Top already had two albums under their belts,  ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, both more-than-decent slabs of blues and hard rock with the promise of something more.  Third album Tres Hombres easily delivered on that promise and proved to be the band’s first major breakthrough.  With the band hitting a career-best as songwriters and performers, the end result is for many their finest moment, both a near-perfect rock album and a definitive contemporary Texas blues album.

Classic cuts abound:  Waitin’ For the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago sit so well together here that they’ve stayed that way on compilations and in live sets ever since.  Both are Texas blues anthems, with Jesus… in particular a standout featuring a stunning guitar turn from Billy Gibbons. In contrast, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers is, as you might imagine, as “straight ahead rock” as it gets.  La Grange, celebrating a famous Texas brothel, starts out as a ringer for The Rolling Stones’ version of Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips before owning that arrangement’s John Lee Hooker heritage and taking it down a rocked-up road all its own.

That Stones influence is apparent too on Move It On Down the Line, a sort of lightweight second cousin to Street Fighting Man. Master of Sparks and Precious and Grace are great funky hard rock tracks while Sheik is a step or two further towards hard-edged funk, quoting the riff from Curtis Mayfield’s Freddy’s Dead and likely influencing Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the process (that Chili Peppers connection is most apparent in the ending, for which the intro to Aeroplane from One Hot Minute is a near soundalike).

There’s a religious element to the lyrics here and there but the themes are not shoved down your throat.  Have You Heard is a gospel number which preaches its damnation-or-salvation message softly: ‘Which way are you comin’ from?  Goin’ up or gettin’ down?”  Countryfied blues Hot, Blue and Righteous employs a similarly light touch while Jesus Just Left Chicago flat-out delights with its mix of Delta and Biblical imagery (“… muddy water turned to wine”).

Everyone here is at the top of their game – Dusty Hill’s gritty bass, Frank Beard’s tough and deceptively intricate drumming, Bill Ham’s pitch-perfect production, the mix of Gibbons’ and Hill’s contrasting vocals – but really this is Gibbons’ masterpiece as a guitarist.  Mixing fat Les Paul and wiry Strat tones, he even pioneers two-handed tapping, both with pick (or rather peso) and fingers, clearly planting the seeds for the likes of Edward Van Halen and Joe Satriani.  His slide playing is masterful too, while the bluesier leads are a clear influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan.

ZZ Top have continued to produce genre-stretching recordings of sheer class over a further four decades (okay, there was a bit of a fallow period in the ’80s when Gibbon’s commendable tendencies towards sonic experimentation led them down a synth-and-drum machine cul-de-sac, and now a new album from them is like chicken’s teeth, but still).  However, they never sounded better than on Tres Hombres.  One of the Great Albums.

ZZ Top Tres Hombres

Original Warner’s tape, paper labels and all that, decent playback, about four quid online.