The Rolling Stones bring a heavy touch to Blue and Lonesome
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The records that become go-to albums have a sense of familiarity. If not necessarily bred over time, then the music inherently carries some kind of timeless quality that lends itself to repeated and uninterrupted listens.
Theoretically, a Rolling Stones blues album could be that. The records where that influence pops up have certainly earned that label — Exile on Main St., Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones Now!, even Jamming With Edward, an album of 1969 studio jams with pianist Nicky Hopkins, has gotten more airtime in my living room than a lot of records.
And in the present, a blues album by the Stones is just that. It’s been about six months since Blue and Lonesome landed from the dashed-off spaces of a London studio, and the more times it runs through the headphones, the better it sounds.
To that end, I’ve spent time on bootlegs with less credibility before — promises of Mick Jagger on the harp in the studio, Keith Richards riffing away, the Rolling Stones jamming the blues and running through tunes in the studio with the kind of casual command that other bands could only dream on. Depending on the era and quality, some delivered as advertised and some took a little faith and massaging to enjoy.
The timing here is mildly suspect — the Stones hadn’t released an album since 2005’s A Bigger Bang, so the sudden rumors and promises that they’d recorded a blues album in three days and were ready to put it out were hard to believe. They seemed content to play live and indulge in free time and maybe a few side projects, but them running into a studio to rip out a blues record seemed out of character.
But here we are. If calling Blue and Lonesome a revelation is too much, it was at minimum a huge statement on their career. They can still jam and their mastery of this style is second to none. I liked it almost right away. Of course I did. Beyond the elaborate stages and the costumes and the light show and ridiculous, four-story screens stands a band that plays as tight as they do loose, able to channel decades of study on blues and soul into a three-minute song at will.
That will has rightly been called in question in the past. For as good as all their studio recordings still are — which continually defies all logic pertaining to a band in their golden years — there will always be the question of their true motives: Are they a band striving for integrity or simply the largest payday available?
Certainly, the biggest check does not rest with the blues. So what’s left is just the passion and joy that comes with playing this music. And while this might be a callback to their days playing R&B sets at the Crawdaddy in London before fame hit, the sound is not the picking of still-learning players. This is heavy on the groove and a generous flexing of their blues chops.
This is not a gentle attack. The heavy bottom that Charlie Watts and Darryl Jones provide is compounded by the thickness of the twin-guitar attack. Without separating channels, it’s difficult to pinpoint when Ronnie Wood is playing and when it’s Richards, which is the entire point of their guitar-weaving. Beyond some chunkier riffs (likely Richards) and quick little fills (Wood’s forte), the two are in and out of the riffs constantly, darting and pivoting and making just a racket over the steady thwomp of the rhythm section.
But this aspect of the Stones is hardly lost, even in their glitziest moments. As they continue to march through countries and stadiums, now 54 years since Watts joined and solidified the original band, the interplay of band is always present, no matter what new dance movies Jagger is strutting down the walkway off the stage. What puts the album over the top is Jagger himself, in as full-throated and powerful a vocal performance as he’s shown in ages.
For as solid as much of the Stones’ latter-day catalog has been, the down moments are often when they veer too far out of their lane, whether in a genre experiment or some ballad that doesn’t go over as intended. None of those pitfalls are present here, and within that, Jagger steps forward and howls. On “All Your Love,” he’s nearly guttural as he reaches for those high notes that provide the call back at the top of the verse. He sounds at once like a young man and the grizzled veteran he truly is. It’s a sound that suits him so well and one that he’s seemingly avoided since the band’s stadium era began in earnest at the end of the 1980s.
Then there’s his harmonica playing. A constant personal mission has been to praise Jagger’s harp stylings, which comes with a distinct tone and bite that I could only dream of recreating in my own playing. It’s in full bloom here, with edgy solos in “Blue and Lonesome” and lots of quick punctuations throughout that take the entire collection further into those real, electric blues.
What’s left is a mean little record. In 12 songs over about 40 minutes, the Stones demonstrate something beyond “they’ve still got it,” that tinge of surprise that lingers whenever a new Stones recording is good. Within this music lie the sweat and the grit of a band in the cool nightclub, the guys who are so casually fantastic as to downplay their true skill and genius. It’s one that will live well beyond the six months it’s been out. It’s a gem that will be discovered and rediscovered as more interested listeners dig around for more of what has made this band so great.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org