Stones recapture their mojo, dignity on blistering “Blue and Lonesome.”

5 Dec

For those of us who love the Rolling Stones the last few decades have been a tough slog.  Their increasingly rare studio output has varied between occasionally catchy professionalism and boring, borderline embarrassing filler while their neverending stadium tours have veered near self-parody.  In the process, a once daring and controversial band of rogues has settled for playing a mostly safe Rolling Stones revue for high rollers in corporate suites with set-lists that rarely change and offer little promise of surprise.

Once dangerous, perhaps even revolutionary, the Stones have become a commodity–lifestyle rock best suited for beer commercials (or any other commercial willing to pay their hefty licensing fees). Every now and again they actually, you know, ….TRY and catch at least a spark of the old magic, but for the most part they’ve been coasting on competence and professionalism.

Set against that backdrop, Blue and Lonesome is enough to bring a true Stones fan to tears–in a good way.   By now you’ve probably heard the story.  Walled off in Mark Knopfler’s studio, trying and failing to get somewhere recording new original material, the Stones tried to loosen up by playing some of their favorite blues covers and it worked–so well  that they ended up cutting an album’s worth and doing so quickly, over three days, playing live around open mics without overdubs.  The result is glorious.

This is not one of those overly studied, well-mannered blues tributes that artists like Eric Clapton (who guests here on a handful of tracks) occasionally drop for the adult radio crowd.  It’s not smoothed over elevator music.  It won’t play in a dentist’s office–and if it does, I might watch the good doctor around the anesthetics.  It’s loose, a bit raw and not especially mannered.  It also doesn’t lean lazily on tried and true classics.  Of the album’s dozen tracks, only Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” popularized by Otis Rush and Led Zeppelin comes close to being a household name outside of houses occupied by blues purists.

Instead what we get is four core Stones, augmented by bassist Daryl Jones and keyboardists Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford cutting loose in powerful ways.  Whether by accident or design, the material brings out the best in everybody involved.

It’s an especially great showcase for Ronnie Wood.  Still seen as “the new guy” even though he’s logged more than four decades in the band, he’s somewhat unfairly known more for his personality and partying than his actual playing.  His stint in devil-may-care slop-rockers The Face (not to mention various rehab facilities) may contribute to that perception.  However, he cut his teeth in the same blues scene that launched the rest of the Stones as well as Clapton, Jeff Beck and just about every other member of heavy rock royalty.  While it may not be common knowledge, he’s an ace player and “Blue and Lonesome” gives him his best showcase as Stone.  He rises to the occasion spectacularly, going full on Hubert Sumlin on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit A Crime” and affecting a powerful slow burn in the background of the title track, originally a Little Walter favorite.

But the true star here is Mick Jagger.  For years now, he’s been portrayed as everythign that’s wrong the Stones; ripped by everybody from critics to his partner in crime Keith Richards for his affectations, awkward pop star moves and general tendencies to prance and preen more than sing and front a band.  Here,  he’s fully committed and in full command of his vocals which move from frisky to fierce and back again.  Best of all is his oft-underrated harmonica work.  With Richards and Charlie Watts content to lay back and provide a sturdy rhythmic foundation for the songs, Jagger gets to hog much of the instrumental spotlight and he’s more than up to the task, coloring every track with searing harp work and unrestrained vocals, never more so than on Magic Sam’s “All Your Love,” Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain,” and Little Walter’s “I Got To Go.”

Seriously though, the whole record’s a kick–all killer no filler– and doesn’t lose an ounce of steam from beginning to end.  Other standouts include another Little Walter number, “Hate To See You Go” which sounds like it could have been cut at an early Fat Possum session in Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint and the smoldering swamp stomp of Otis Hicks’ “Hoodoo Blues” 

Time will tell if this is just a one-off blast of glory, or , if like Bob Dylan’s early 90’s return to the folk and country blues he covered as a young man, this gives the Stones a late-career push into fertile new music.  However it works out, this much is true.

By not trying to sound like the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band the Rolling Stones make a compelling case for the crown. By mining the past for inspiration they become a band that once again might have a future worth caring about.  GRADE A

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