One of the enduring axioms of music is the relationship between blues and rock n’ roll. Simply put, rock and roll is a young man’s game while blues just gets better with age. BB King was still going strong well into his old age, sounding as fresh at 80 as he did at 25, and guitarists like Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal continue to keep that tradition alive. While The Rolling Stones have held up remarkably well playing songs they recorded 50 years ago, it still had an oldies feel to it. The Stones I saw in the 21st century were a shadow of what I witnessed in the early 1970s. So, when the band went into the studio to work on some new tracks, they started riffing on the blues and subsequently rediscovered their muse. The result is Blue & Lonesome.
Recorded in only three days, it’s their first album in more than 10 years and the best thing they’ve recorded in many decades. It is raw, potent and filled with passion. Hearing Mick Jagger playing the harmonica like Little Walter is a joy. The Stones have returned to the sound that launched the band in the early 1960s (they’re named after a Muddy Waters song), but as older and wizened veterans they have truly mastered the blues genre that only comes with a lifetime of experiences.
Rather than choosing the safe and well known blues numbers from earlier in their career, the Stones chose more obscure songs. It’s a winning formula that delivers with gritty determination. This album firmly re-establishes the Stones one of the all-time great British blues bands. And it begs the questions, “Guys, what took so long?” I have avoided Stones concerts in recent years, but, when they tour again, I’m there.
Now to some of the tracks:
“Commit a Crime” is covered brilliantly with Mick doing his best to get the gravelly brilliance of Howlin’ Wolf’s voice. His harmonica riffs are stunning while Keith Richard and Ronnie Wood trade blues licks (which they do throughout the album).
The title track, “Blue & Lonesome”, first recorded by Memphis Slim, is a classic. Mick’s pleading, desperate vocals are paired sublimely with straight forward Chicago blues guitar work. When Mick wails on the harmonica, you just feel the despair. It is straight forward and as raw as a cold windy winter day.
“All Your Love” is a little known gem from Magic Sam, a forgotten but important blues artist from Mississippi who died way too young at 32 in Chicago in 1969. Chuck Leavell adds a really nice piano solo while the drifting guitar solo brings the song to a satisfying conclusion
“I Gotta Go” is true to the Little Walter original, and it’s no doubt that the band is reverential in their cover. Little Walter was the Harmonica player back in the day. Mick emulates the harp riffs admirably. Some blues purists feel that Little Walter was a little too commercial, but there is no denying his ability as a musician.
“Everything Knows about My Good Thing” opens with a brilliant slide solo by Eric Clapton and we are off to the races. Clapton has done his best to keep the blues alive over the past 20 years and his contribution here is most welcome. Mick again is emotional and bares his soul with heartfelt vocals.
“Little Rain” from the legendary delta performer Jimmy Reed is a gem. Jimmy Reed was a toweringly great performer that has never gotten the recognition he deserves. Most folks know his biggest hit, “Big Boss Man”, but Reed has an impressive body of work. While the 50’s and 60’s were all about the Chicago sound, Jimmy Reed never lost touch with the slower, earthier sound of Delta Blues. While all of Mick’s other playing on this album is Chicago blues, he shifts to the easy going style that made Reed a legend. Mick really shows his mastery on the harmonica shifting the sound to match the style.
“I Can’t Quit You” is probably the best known track on the album, mostly for the Led Zeppelin rendition. Written by the prolific Willie Dixon for Otis Rush, The Stones do the song justice with a brilliant take. Otis had a powerful voice and Mick gives it his all. Eric Clapton returns with an inspired guitar solo that weaves his blues magic that earned him the well-deserved moniker as Slowhand.
This album is magic and pure joy, and is sure to be considered the best blues album of 2016. Granted blues this raw is an acquired taste, but this album is enticing and delivers wonderfully on all fronts. The Blues has lost its way over the past few years and gets little recognition. The Rolling Stones have done their part admirably to draw attention to a great, great musical genre.