Take everything you’ve ever heard about the Rolling Stones for the past two decades or so, which document a “band in decline,” and write it down on a list. They’re too old, they haven’t made a strong album in decades (I disagree), their best days are behind them, etc. Now, get yourself a copy of their latest outing, Blue & Lonesome, play it (loudly!), and see if you aren’t tempted to burn up that list in the sparks, smoke, and flame in the bonfire created by the band on this disc.
In their ripe old seventies, the Stones have once again proven they can never be counted out. From the video of the waif-like Kristin Stewart seductively gunning a deep blue classic Mustang to the tune “Ride ‘Em On Down” that announced the disc’s release, to the final tracks where Eric Clapton gleefully joins the band for some blistering guitar work, Blue & Lonesome doesn’t have a bad track on it.
The Stones reputedly put this album together in three days. After hitting a snag in the recording of some new material, Keith Richards suggested playing an old favorite blues cover to loosen up and unbeknownst to the band, producer Don Was kept the tape rolling. The results were incendiary. The band decided to pay tribute to their blues mentors with the resulting tracks. The song selection on this album of covers – there are no original Jagger/Richards tunes – is stellar. The band recorded at the Chess studios in Chicago very early in their career, and they share an encyclopedic knowledge of and passionate obsession for Chicago and Delta blues.
The Stones’ version of tracks written by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (among others) are meant to inspire and expand the genre, rather than imitate. As Mick Jagger writes in the liner notes: “All of these songs have antecedents. We’re paying our respects. But we’re [also] taking the blues forward and hopefully introducing them to a whole new generation of fans.” And they do. The Stones have always paid homage to their heroes and made an effort to expand opportunities for those heroes, starting with their insistence that Howlin’ Wolf appear on the TV show Shindig as a condition of their appearance on the show in the early 60s. In addition, they have featured many bluesmen from Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal to B.B. King and John Lee Hooker onstage during their shows.
The energy and quality of the playing on the disc showcases my major argument for the band these days: forget about hype and star-power, what we have here is simply one of the finest collections of musicians in modern music. The steady guitar interplay between Ron Wood and Keith Richards is never boring or fraught with clichés. But the standout performances on this album come from Mick Jagger. Recently fathering another child at the age of 73, he sings with the passion and intensity of the very first Stones album, and indeed, every bit as well. The only difference between that first outing 54 years ago and this one is the added depth, subtlety, and nuance in Jagger’s tone, the result of years on the road and the experience that brings. This is a confident, mature singer who definitely knows exactly what he’s talking about.
In addition to the powerful vocals, Jagger’s harmonica playing is strong and inventive, and every bit as welcome a solo instrument as any of the guitarists (including Clapton). He flaunts his bona fides with precision and swagger, playing more frequently and fluently than he normally does on Stones albums. Of special note here is the variety of tones he pulls out of his mouth playing harp. He not only shares that trademark Jagger tone on a number of tracks, but he pulls off some sonic tributes to a few other harp players like Little Walter, by inching away from his standard tone and exploring new territory.
This disc a gem, and I can’t take it off my player. There’s no evidence of slavish imitation here; every track on it resonates with authenticity and the obsessive love of a group of fans still in the blush of first love. As the Stones pay tribute to their roots, they are actually building on them and moving them forward in a way that blues purists will certainly approve of. Buy this and play it. Then, tell me, what were you going to do with that list?
Stu O’Connor is an educator, musician, and poet who has spent his life dedicated to the power of the word, the necessity of precision in language, and the human need for story as a method of transmitting culture, ideas, and understanding. He has been published in The Mad Poets Review, New Voices in American Poetry, and the Poetry Ink 20 th Anniversary Anthology. He has an undergraduate degree from West Chester University, a Master’s degree from Gratz College, and teaches English in the West Chester Area School District. He has held an Advisory Board seat for West Chester University’s Writing Zones program and currently is an Advisory Board member for The Mad Poets Society, one of the Philadelphia Region’s largest poetry groups. He performs music on a regular basis with two bands and hosts a poetry series in West Chester called ”Living on Luck” for The Mad Poets Society.