BLUE & LONESOME – THE ROLLING STONES (POLYDOR)
By Brian Wise.
Producer Don Was could possibly have been taken aback but remained incredibly polite a few years back when I bumped into him at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
‘When are you going to get the Stones to make a blues album?’ I demanded as we stood in the merch tent looking at CDs. ‘I am trying my best,’ he protested and I responded, ‘Well, you’ll just have to try harder!’
I have since apologised for my rudeness and had a wonderful interview with Was in New Orleans earlier this year where he told me about the genesis of the new album.
“We convened to do some new songs. Just to blow off some steam,” Was explained. “Keith said, ‘Let’s play ‘Blue and Lonesome’ by Little Walter, right?’ It was just magnificent.”
Amazingly, the band recorded a whole album’s worth of material in just over two days. Chuck Leavell later put down his piano parts with Was in New Orleans. The result is Blue & Lonesome, a recording to gladden the hearts of all those who have suffered for years in the belief that they could still be great. (There is a God after all!).
“They’re authentic roots guys at heart, I think,” said Was. “They can do all kinds of other things but I think the Stones were always at their best when they took the tradition that they’d absorbed and turned it into something new. They’re great musicologists. They listen to all kinds of stuff. They absorbed roots American blues, and folk music, and interesting tunings, and all that. They love rock and roll. They changed the way people played rock and roll.”
As much I would like to take credit for planting the seed you really did not need to be a genius to figure it out. The Stones. A blues album. Why wouldn’t it work? Now, having heard it, you might well ask why the hell didn’t they do this sooner?
Of course, when Brian Jones helped get the group together they were steeped in the blues and spend their nights playing blues and early rock ‘n’ roll classics. Their first four albums consisted mainly of covers of songs by Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and others. Their version of Dixon’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ was the first blues single to reach No.1 in the UK. Most of the early Jagger/Richards songs such as ‘The Spider & The Fly,’ ‘Little By Little,’ ‘Grown Up All Wrong,’ ‘Good Times, Bad Times,’ ‘Play With Fire’ and others were all informed by Mick and Keith’s love of the blues. (In fact, there is a small treasure trove of their songs ripe for covering. John Hammond did a great version of ‘The Spider and The Fly’). When they toured the States they insisted on having blues acts open for them or appear on the same TV shows.
Then Dylan and The Beatles made it fashionable for musicians and even groups to write their own songs. By 1965 and the Aftermath album the Jagger/Richards songwriting combination penned all of the songs for the studio albums. However, over the decades the Stones included blues songs on their albums or in their live sets – witness the fantastic version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love In Vain’ on Let It Bleed and Get Yer Ya Yas Out or Johnson’s ‘Stop Breakin’ Down’ on Exile On Main Street (along with Slim Harpo’s ‘Hip Shake’). Later, on Love You Live they included a killer version of Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ and they have included various covers or blues-influenced songs as B-Sides on many singles. If you needed even more proof that Jagger and Richards should have been doing the blues thing years ago then you just have to listen to their mighty contributions to the Jimmy Rogers tribute album Blues Blues Blues in 1999 on ‘Trouble No More’ and ‘Don’t Start me To Talkin’.’
So, for the first time since their early days, the Stones have released a totally blues-inspired album. Little Walter features heavily. There are four of his songs, including the title track. Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon are also represented. It’s raucous spontaneous and sounds superb.
Eric Clapton guests on two songs, playing slide on ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’ (recorded by Little Johnny Taylor) and guitar on Willie Dixon’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby.’
Blue & Lonesome is the first Rolling Stones studio album in nearly 11 years and obviously their most focused effort for decades. To be able to put aside any songwriting competition and angst and just concentrate on the performance on songs that the band members love seems a major factor in making this work so well. (In a recent interview Keith even claims that he felt the ghost of Brian Jones with whom he used to perform some of the songs in the group’s formative years). Don Was brings a contemporary sound to the traditional music, so that it sounds modern but not cluttered.
To say this is the band’s best album since Tattoo You in 1981 might be damning it with faint praise but it is true. A lot of people agree because it shot to No.1 in Britain and the UK and the Top 5 in the US. The success should send Mick Jagger a message.
In October I had the chance to see the Stones perform one of the songs, ‘Ride ‘Em On Down,’ during their Las Vegas set and it was fantastic. The band fired up as if they had been playing nothing but blues for their entire career. Jagger’s harp playing was close to brilliant, Keith Richards seemed energised as he was released from the usual predictable set list. It was glorious to see and hear them playing so enthusiastically.
Now, if the Stones would just tour here behind this album that would be perfect!