Forget for a moment the enterprise that is The Rolling Stones today. Forget the merchandise, the costumes, the ornate stage designs, the multitude of documentaries and concert films, the album reissues, infighting, pageantry, and really most of what you know about the band on the surface. Just imagine a couple of kids, united by their love of American blues, getting together to play that music and see where it takes them.
Add some mileage to the kids and you get an idea of what to expect with ‘Blue & Lonesome,’ the legendary band’s first studio album in 11 years and proof that if you cut away the nearly mythological excesses that have defined much of their career, you’re still left with the best goddamn rock and roll band in the world.
The blues is at the root of all the music the Stones have ever made (‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ aside, but the less said about that the better) and they’ve spent a career paying their dues to the genre. So ingrained is the music in their DNA that this isn’t even the album they initially intended to make; the boys gathered in the studio to record new songs, hit a wall, and decided to blow off some steam. Things felt good, they ran with it, and ‘Blue & Lonesome,’ which will unquestionably be regarded as an essential addition to their storied canon, was rattled off in a scant three days.
The track selection runs the gamut of the Chicago masters, touching on Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush and more. Throughout, the songs attest to the depth of this superficially simple genre and the broad range of music possible with three chords and an abundance of feeling.
That feeling drives twelve consistently great performances. Although they are vessels for this music, the Stones inject each song with their inimitable, roughneck sleaze, paying tribute to their forebears while inhabiting their tunes like they own them. Charlie Watts, ever the unsung hero, is at turns explosive, nuanced, or both, nailing each classic groove effortlessly and adding tasteful embellishments where appropriate; dig how the drums evolve over the course of the menacing ‘Commit a Crime,’ complementing the severity of the lyrics and keeping the attentive listener on their toes.
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By now, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood have their hard-edged guitar weaving down to a science, but both still get their individual moments to shine. Ronnie’s impassioned fills dominate ‘Blue and Lonesome’ and Keith adds some raunchy lines as slurred as his speech to ‘All Of Your Love.’ He is, as usual, unmistakable, and his playing remains one of the mysteries of the Stones sound. Guest and fellow child of the 1960s British blues boom Eric Clapton (serendipitously recording next door during the ‘Blue & Lonesome’ sessions) lends his virtuosity and growling tone to ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’ and ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby,’ ending each side of the album with a bang.
Mick Jagger, meanwhile, hurls himself into his vocals with an abandon unmatched by anyone half (or a third) his age. When he screams the title phrase to ‘All Of Your Love,’ you know he ain’t settling for 99 percent of your love, while his sneer on ‘Hoo Doo Blues’ adds a punkish character to the lyrics distinct from any other blues howler. Jagger bounces between sinister, flamboyant, desperate and authoritative, and the continued strength and dexterity of his vocals inspires awe from first song to last.
The spontaneous conditions of the recording make for another unique charm of ‘Blue & Lonesome.’ There is some studio chatter after songs, applause or encouragement, final slashes of guitar or rolls on the drums, all evidencing that none of this was scripted and defying the bland perfectionism that defines so many modern records. It’s a metaphorical throwing down of the gauntlet by the septuagenarians (with the exception of youngster Ronnie Wood, 69), proof that a few guitars, drums, keys and mics can still make magic.
When an album like this comes around, you get a lot of what I’ll call “legacy reviews,” which amount to little more than pats on the back for the sheer fact that an aging artist is still at it. Many have called ‘Blue & Lonesome’ the Stones’ best in years. Not terribly surprising, this is their only album in years. Critics will categorize it any number of ways but the fact is this isn’t a great comeback album; it isn’t a great blues album; it isn’t a great covers album; it isn’t a great album for men in their seventies; it’s just a great fucking album. More than fifty years on, the boys are still showing us how it’s done.