Finally it can be said. This is the Rolling Stones album we’ve all wanted them to make (‘we’ meaning those of us who care, or cared, about the Stones at any point, that is): a blues album that gets back to the band’s bedrock rhythm and roots foundation. An album made quickly — not too fussed over or fidgeted with — and played with verve and guts and heart and feeling. (Call it soul if you wish). An album more scuffed than shiny. An album constructed from chemistry and genuine, old fashioned inspiration rather than the misguided calculation that modern and sleeker is better. That may work when plotting gargantuan world tours, but rarely does it work well for Stones records. (When I read that “Blue & Lonesome” was cut in three days I felt something akin to excitement begin to stir inside me).
Even taking into account that the band has likely been playing this material — covers of songs recorded by blues titans such as Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Willie Dixon — in one form or another for the better part of their long, storied lives, a three-day window to assemble a bunch of fabulously wealthy, sated seventy-somethings in one place, have them dive into meaty music like they mean it, and emerge with a dozen keepers still seems quite a feat. Remember, this is a band who had not entered a studio to make a new, full-fledged album in more than a decade.
But here it is in the waning days of a hard, ugly, and mostly terrible 2016, and here I am, spinning “Lonesome & Blue” on vinyl and trying to be grateful for life’s pleasures great and small. For me, listening to the Rolling Stones breathe new life into ancient texts has been one of those pleasures. In that spirit, I am my own Julie Freaking Andrews, Alive with The Sound of Stones.
I can’t remember the last time, save for a fleeting blast of catharsis here or there, I heard frontman Mick Jagger play blues harp — or sing, for that matter — with such divinely dirty conviction and authority. First, the harmonica. Like the best of what blues harp playing can do — or mean — to a number, Jagger’s instrument adds lively language to the conversation. On the shuffle-and-roll opener, “Just Your Fool,” he and it saunter into the proceedings and take quick command, climbing aboard and riding astride Keith Richards’s and Ronnie Wood’s interlocking, casually communicative guitars. Through this modest assemblage of reeds, chrome, and screws, Jagger talks to his cohorts, skips and jumps along to Charlie Watts’s drums, and parries with Darryl Jones’s bottom-end bass.
Jagger has always been an emotionally evocative harp player who adroitly avoids the pitfall of cliche, learning from records by masters like Junior Wells and Little Walter Jacobs (the latter of whom gets three cover treatments: the simple, skeleton-rattling plea, “Blue and Lonesome,” is both title track and atmospheric highlight; meanwhile, the brisk workouts, “I Gotta Go” and “Hate To See You Go” are delightful rides along the blues-wailing rails. The latter number is a kissing cousin of the Muddy Waters’ popularized 1953 recording of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” which, incidentally, featured none other than Little Walter on harmonica).
In Mick’s hands and lips, the instrument sobs, preens, smirks, winks, and underscores its owner’s state of mind. Here and there, it/he lets out a laugh before pushing everything forward and harder, giving a giddy-up to the stately measures. It can be playful or pugnacious, but whatever the tone or setting, it always swings with colorful personality.
Surprisingly, much the same can be said of Jagger’s suddenly pliant, newly limber vocals. Previously, in its autumnal incarnation, those 70-plus-year-old lungs had been prone to sounding a bit stiffly starched, with an overly mannered air that sometimes made the material sound like flat, formal recitations of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than actual rock ‘n’ roll. As if to compensate for a shrinking, souring range, Jagger actually began enunciating. (Gimme that old garbled slur and declarative shout any day). I vividly (painfully) recall listening to Mick’s “new” vocals grafted onto a clutch of 1971-72 demos for the 2010 deluxe re-release of “Exile On Main St.” and being struck by the fact that it wasn’t the two-and-a-half hour wind sprints across aircraft-carrier sized stages that had finally caught up with Sir Mick. It was him trying to match, or recapture, his 20-something self that did.
So what’s pleasantly striking to me now, six years later, as I listen to his vocal performances, casually at first and then, half-disbelieving my ears, intently, is the dawning realization that this album — this stripped-down, old-school Stones album of blues covers, which carries none of the modern-day production nods that Jagger usually favors as a way to be seen as remaining “current” — ultimately belongs to Mick Jagger.
Keith always gets the credit for the cred and the cool — the reason why a good, raunchy Stones record sounds the way it does: It’s Keith, man. Well, OK fair enough. But remember that it’s never as pure, easy, or simple a formula as that. The band’s best and most inspired work has always been about alchemy and dynamics; the creative push and pull between two strong, independent-minded songwriting personalities with dramatically different outlooks and sensibilities about how a piece of music should sound and what it should, or could, be. Long ago these brothers from another mother called themselves “The Glimmer Twins.” And siblings sometimes fight.
Keith may embody a monochromatic, single-minded loyalty to the classic “Stones sound” we all grew up on (albeit with a pungent dose of the reggae rhythms he’s ingested since the ’70s), and he’s always been quite content to draw from that grab bag of grooves until he drops. And hell, I’m quite content to hear it until I do the same. (Especially if he and Ron Wood keep doing what they do here. Rarely in recent years, to my ears, have those electric guitars sounded this gut-bucket good together). But Mick is and was the visual, visceral flash point who — with founding member Brian Jones — first personified and connected that rough-hewn sound we love to the masses.
Before Mick, pop musicians stood and sang from inside their suits. Mick moved. He leered into the TV cameras, busted unkempt moves in a game but ungainly early attempt at fusing James Brown with Tina Turner, and wagged a knowing finger at what the audience wanted, teasing them, summoning their desire, exhorting them to delirium. Blues and soul artists had long known a thing or three about showmanship (not to mention proto-rockers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis). Jagger, ever the serious blues scholar and R&B devotee (like the rest of the band, sans drummer Charlie Watts, who was more of a jazz cat), studied his heroes and then took what he had learned to the top of the pops.
In place of ecstatic harmonies from a cookie-cutter group of cheerfully bobbing heads was a feline-faced Satyr, smacking his lips at the prospect of another kind of ecstasy. (If you judge Jagger’s skill strictly by his vocal chops you are missing half the equation). If pop made by, and for, teens in the years 1963-65 was about hitting the beach or swooning over puppy love, the blues music the teenage Stones dedicated themselves to was about slipping in the back door and satisfying carnal lust. At some point for the shaggy young Stones, probably very early on, fantasy became reality.
Regardless, Jagger’s complete conviction in the service of rock ‘n’ roll artifice is what made him so enigmatic, so compelling, so ironically authentic — and what made us so eager to suspend our disbelief that a scrawny ex-London School of Economics student really could be the crimson-bathed Midnight Rambler creeping down our hall to steal our missus from under our nose.
This is the vintage Mick I’m reminded of, prowling inside the ragged but resilient red heart of “Blue & Lonesome,” and on numbers like “Commit A Crime,” Howlin’ Wolf’s lean slab of rebuke and guarded malevolence, wrung from a narrator who realizes his lover just might be trying to get rid of him — permanently — (“You put poison in my coffee”). It doesn’t hurt that the whole band simmers around him, like that pot of boiling coffee on the stove. On these tracks, I hear Mick’s voice not as mawkish caricature or self-parody, or a distant, bittersweet echo of what once was. But as a vital force alive right here and now, the nature of his game intact at a spry 73.
Which brings us to the curious question of why? For a ritualistic role player whose strong suit as a singer has never been based upon confessional sincerity or soul-baring intimacy, the blues is a curious place for him to shine; an unlikely place to be emotionally resonant. And yet, it’s the one realm where I always felt able to actually get a little closer to the flesh and blood person who resided behind the lips-and-tongue persona.
Maybe that feeling has something to do with the fact that while the fashions, musical trends, and women in his life come and go (they’re just like street cars), Mick’s true love affair ultimately lies with the music that’s stayed with him, and mattered to him as a source of stability and even comforting familiarity. If you need an example of the kind of romance I’m talking about, just listen to Jagger’s devotional ode to Jimmy Reed on the slow, sumptuous “Little Rain.” Even my wife, who’s endured more Rolling Stones music during our nearly 30 years together than she likely ever dreamt (or dreaded) she’d ever hear in her lifetime, just now turned her attention and ear away from her work, and remarked from the other room: “Wow, Mick kind of sounds like he used to, doesn’t he? Just goes to show what kind of music still suits him best.”
I have to agree. After all these years, this is also the kind of music that obviously still suits the Stones and their shared history. If not exactly the band’s birthright, blues was at least the mother’s milk of their formative years; it’s what they were weaned on back when they were blonde Brian’s scrappy rhythm & blues band purists who balked at being called pop stars (which they weren’t, yet). It was the lifeblood coursing through the black vinyl grooves of the Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed records they inhaled at their squalid flat in Edith Grove. Those faraway sounds from across the Atlantic taught them, toughened them, emboldened them to grow into themselves, and stake out a unique destiny all their own.
It’s a destiny that’s at long last brought them here, full circle. If they just walked away after this, and headed off into the blue lighted sunset of this music they’ve made — music that is more than anyone expected of them at this late stage of the game — that circle would feel fitting and utterly complete.
Despite (or perhaps because of) being bashed-about and knocked-out off-the-cuff, “Blue & Lonesome” firmly and fully situates itself in time and place. Like most good albums, it captures and distills a sustained mood and feeling, a frame of mind, a state of being suspended, inhabiting the room for as long as we choose to play it, and return to it. And maybe ultimately, it’s a bracingly welcome, if relatively brief (at 42 minutes), escape from whatever else is going on in your, and my, life at the moment.
I’ll close with a couple of quick notes, so I can get to the other room and turn the record over again (it’s a double LP). Yes, as you’ve probably heard, high-profile guitar god Eric Clapton guests on a couple of tracks (playing pungent slide guitar on the Little Johnny Taylor-popularized “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” and lending a hand on Otis Rush’s oft-covered but freshly rearranged version of the Willie Dixon-penned “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Much to my relief, Clapton’s tightly constructed solos sound entirely in keeping with the jam-session mood of the moment rather than a superfluous guest star-turn with whoever’s “hot” at the moment (Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Lady Gaga etc.) — a demographic focus-group cross-marketing ploy that, for me, have badly blemished recent Stones records and marred live shows.
Speaking of guitar gods and others, there are a few folks who I wish were on here but aren’t: What might-have-been had ex-Stones lead guitarist Mick Taylor been on hand to apply his blues brilliance to this record remains a question that shall go unanswered. And sadly, a pair of longtime Stones allies are no longer with us: longtime saxophone sideman Bobby Keys, and occasional pianist Ian “Mac” McLagan (Ronnie’s old Faces bandmate and a charter member of Keith and Ron’s ’70s outfit, the New Barbarians), died within days of each other two years ago. Their absence is keenly felt.
This skip back through the decades also conjures memories of three pianists — Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, and original sixth Stone-turned-road manager Ian “Stu” Stewart — all sadly gone now, and all of whom had a hand in bringing out the best of this combo, in the studios and on the stages of their, and our, youth.
Oddly enough, it does feel as if Brian is here somewhere in the haze, watching over his onetime pupils and partners, a spectral figure standing in the blue shadows. To my mind, any Stones record that can conjure and connect Brian back to the band, even if only in spirit and feeling (that’s all we’ve got), has succeeded marvelously.
Honestly, I’ve not much liked, nor cared about, most new Stones product these past 20 years. But I do like this one a fair amount. So, apparently, do a lot of people. Since being released late last week, “Blue & Lonesome” has quickly ascended the U.K. charts, becoming the first Stones disc to hit Number One since 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge.” For now, at least, it all seems a bit like old times. And I don’t know about you, but I could sure use some of those.