Album Review: Blue and Lonesome by The Rolling Stones
Great, Based on 15 Critics
Record Collector - 100 Based on rating 5/5
Any doubts about the Stones releasing a set of blues covers as their first new album since 2005 are trampled just moments into their opening version of Little Walter’s Just A Fool, then annihilated as they lay into original inspirational blueprints by Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Magic Sam and several more obscure names. Recorded in three days at a Chiswick studio with the touring band (and Eric Clapton on two tracks), the Stones show why no other band can touch them when it comes to real deal gutbucket dirt, homing in on the blues’ dark, satanic heart to produce a flame-snorting steam engine to hell of an album. Keith and Woody have long had this music’s essential cut and thrust down to a finely honed art and Charlie carries everything with his effortless roll, but Jagger has rarely sounded so animated or unaffectedly impassioned; moaning, testifying and pumping blood into the tracks between unleashing his legendary harmonica skills.
As Keith Richards tells it, the Rolling Stones' first-ever all-blues album is the result of the band learning how to play in the unfamiliar surroundings of Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios. To ease into the new place, the Stones decided to knock out a version of Little Walter's "Blue and Lonesome" and it sounded good enough that the band decided to cut a few more covers, winding up with a full album of Chicago blues in a few days. The Stones haven't worked at such swift speed in decades -- not since the early '60s, when they were churning out two albums a year -- and much of the appeal of Blue & Lonesome lies in its casualness: by being tossed off, the album highlights how the Stones play together as a band, blending instinct and skill.
On April 7th, 1962, three young Englishmen obsessed with American blues met for the first time, at the Ealing Jazz Club in London. Two of them – singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards from an aspiring combo, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys – were attending a performance by the local blues scene's leading troupe, Blues Incorporated, led by guitarist Alexis Korner. The third man, guitarist Brian Jones, was playing with Korner's group, under the pseudonym Elmo Lewis.
Collection of blues covers takes the Stones back to their roots and to the top of their game When it was announced that the Rolling Stones were to release an album of blues covers, no one voiced a word of disappointment. For while Stones fans invariably welcome brand new material from the pens of Messrs Jagger and Richards, it’s when they return to the source that they truly set pulses racing. No other band executes the blues quite like the Stones.
Lenny Kravitz, in a January 2016 Rolling Stone interview, went full fanboy over his heroes—and role models—the Rolling Stones. “I saw the Stones on the last tour, the last show of the American leg,” he reported. “They were as hardcore as I’ve ever seen them — their aggression and precision were unbelievable. I look at them and say, ‘That’s what I want to be doing when I’m in my seventies.’” And that was before the septuagenarians surprised the world with Blue and Lonesome, an album of cover versions of 12 blues songs recorded mostly in the mid- to late-‘50s by legendary figures (Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Magic Sam) and lesser-known talents (Eddie Taylor, Little Johnny Taylor, Lightnin’ Slim).
Itâ€™s a wise choice for the Rolling Stones to make Blue & Lonesome, their first new album in 10 years, a blues-cover album. Theyâ€™ve been accused of â€œgetting oldâ€ since 1970 and really have never bothered to pay credence to that attack, routinely kicking out straight up rock and roll albums. Mick Jagger has always been Mick Jagger, be it at age 19 or age 73.
Cinema requires the suspension of disbelief to operate. Music, by contrast, often needs a suspension of cynicism in order to provide its serotonin hit. You might argue that the Rolling Stones have long been a gimlet-eyed heritage operation, with Messrs Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood shareholders in a profitable legend that pumps out product and tours to a moneyed audience of heavily co-invested baby boomers willing to shore up that giant mouth logo with their cash.
Here’s an illuminating quote from Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer, plucked from an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock a couple of years back. 'It would be great to make another record, but it's almost, “why bother?” Records don't sell, and they don't do anything. There's no record companies to pay for it, so you have to pay for it out of your pocket.
Last week, a US journalist interviewing the Rolling Stones offered up a 21st-century spin on the old ‘Can white men sing the blues?’ argument. Wasn’t the Stones’ early repertoire, heavy on the songs of Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters et al, just an example of cultural appropriation, he asked? You might charitably describe Keith Richards’ response as a little confused. At one juncture, he appeared to suggest that the blues was actually “quite Jewish”, but the bulk of the answer consisted of Richards insisting that he was, in fact, black: “Ask any of the brothers.” Tireless on your behalf, I’ve researched this thoroughly and can exclusively reveal that he isn’t.
Despite the hasty manner in which Blue & Lonesome was reportedly recorded, the Rolling Stones’s first covers album was a half-century in the making. The band has been playing songs written by 70-something-year-old American black men since they were scruffy 20-year-old kids. But now that the Stones are themselves in their 70s, they sound more natural covering the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Jimmy Reed.
The Rolling Stones have been the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band™ for so long that, over the past three decades, they haven’t had to worry about being an especially good one. Since the mid-’80s, they’ve been releasing forgettable records at increasingly protracted intervals, all while their ever-extravagant world tours have taken on the feel of a traveling Hard Rock Café resort—a glitzy simulacrum of a rock’n’roll show catering to those who can afford to experience it. Fittingly, earlier this year the band went from being a proverbial museum piece to becoming an actual one.
The self-proclaimed World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band have spent the past quarter century trying to recapture their glory years with a series of back-to-basics, better-than-they-should-be records. Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge, Bridges to Babylon and A Bigger Bang each displayed subtle nods to modernity, wrapped in a "classic Stones" sound. Each elicited "best record since…" proclamations.
Honoring the blues legends that came before them is no new trick for The Rolling Stones. The legendary rockers’ storied history includes Mick Jagger and Keith Richards starting out together in a band called the Blue Boys, while Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts played in Blues Incorporated, both groups playing material cribbed from Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and the like. Their decades of mass success since came on the back of adapting those influences into what’s now become a foundational classic rock sound, but perhaps even more so than with The Beatles and other fellow British Invasion honchos, the genre from which sprung forth rock ‘n’ roll was never far behind.
"Blue & Lonesome," studio album by The Rolling Stones. As the final song on the new Rolling Stones album ends, an escalating slow-burn on Willie Dixon's "I Can't Quit You Baby," Charlie Watts' drums rumble amid the buzz and hum of the amplifiers. A raspy voice exults during the fade — "Yeah, boys!" — followed by laughter. In the late stages of a career that spans more than 50 years, the Stones have just about run out of surprises.
As indeed do the Stones themselves. They’ve occasionally been guilty of embracing musical fads to reassert their relevance; it’s partly why they’ve endured for so long, though it’s also why records like ‘Undercover’ and ‘Dirty Work’ exist. By going back to the music that producer Don Was calls the “fountainhead of everything they do”, however, they sound younger than they have in decades.