Review: The Rolling Stones Reinvigorate the Blues on ‘Blue and Lonesome’
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. Three months later, on July 12th, Jagger, Richards and Jones made their live debut as the Rollin’ Stones at the Marquee Club, with bassist Dick Taylor, later of the Pretty Things, and pianist Ian Stewart, who would become the Stones’ devoted road manager and true-blues conscience.
Between those spring and summer landmarks, Jagger also did time with Blues Incorporated in a lineup that included the Stones’ eventual drummer Charlie Watts, singing imported electric-Chicago standards such as “Got My Mojo Working,” a 1957 single by Muddy Waters, and a late-1955 recording by Jimmy Reed’s guitarist Eddie Taylor, “Ride ‘Em on Down.” Fifty-four years later, on Blue and Lonesome, Jagger turns back to that Taylor stomp, chewing on the words – descended from a starker Delta blues, “Shake ‘Em on Down,” codified on a 1937 release by Bukka White – like a favorite meal as the air gets thick with Richards and Ron Wood’s sniping guitars and Watts’ rifle-volley snare fills.
Recorded last December in just three days with co-producer Don Was at British Grove Studios in the London suburb of Richmond – almost spitting distance from the site of the Crawdaddy Club, where the Stones played a life-changing 1963 residency – Blue and Lonesome is the band’s first all-covers studio release since the 1964 U.K. EP The Rolling Stones, and the Stones’ first pure, straight blues record ever. It is also the working lineup of the world’s biggest blues band – with Wood in his 41st year as the new boy and bassist Darryl Jones as Watts’ co-anchor since 1993 – doing what comes naturally in a dozen songs mostly associated with sweet home Chicago: Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, singer-guitarist Magic Sam and especially harp master Little Walter, with four of his Fifties and Sixties singles here.
There is deep South too. The brash London whelps that covered bayou bluesman Slim Harpo’s 1957 B side “I’m a King Bee” on their debut album and named a live LP in honor of the flip (“Got Love If You Want It”) have a romping good time with “Hoodoo Blues” by Harpo’s contemporary, Lightnin’ Slim. And there is a thrilling, unexpected stop, with slide guitar from fellow pilgrim Eric Clapton, at the Louisiana intersection of blues and soul in Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing.” The Stones were actually working closer to the older Delta, covering Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” on Sticky Fingers, when Taylor’s single was a Top Ten R&B hit in 1971 on the Ronn label out of Shreveport. But Jagger’s freewheeling phrasing is the good-time relish of a man who has been writing cheatin’ songs all of his life but knows when he’s got the gold standard in front of him.
The Stones first heard these songs as foreign language – the lust and trials of older, hardened men. That rough weather now fits the Stones – including Wood, who did his apprentice time in London R&B mods the Birds and on bass for the Jeff Beck Group – like a suit off the rack at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market. In “Just Your Fool,” a Checker Records 45 for Little Walter in 1962, Watts presses the beat like a forced, precision march under the chug and spike of Richards and Wood’s guitars. “Blue and Lonesome,” from a 1965 Little Walter single and caught here in a single take, opens with a rush of power-chord sustain, then drops into tense strut marked with jittery bursts of slalom guitar, Jagger cutting in with seething confrontation, especially on harp. Jones originally played that instrument in the Stones, but Jagger grew into their secret weapon. His hearty, supple attack and exclamatory accents are as exciting and decisive as Richards’ bedrock ways on guitar.
Made on impulse, as a much-needed break during other studio work, Blue and Lonesome is a monument to muscle memory. Solos are brief and tight, evoking the honed-punch effect of the original recordings. The running highlight throughout the album is the churning ensemble bond: the hot-plate jump of the guitars over the chasing rhythm in the Little Walter sprint “I Gotta Go”; the feral, stalking tension in Magic Sam’s “All of Your Love” as Jagger tears at the title lyric like an upper-octave Howlin’ Wolf.
Blue and Lonesome is not a record of mere returning, a look back at how it all started. The Stones were already big time when some of these songs were released by the originators including Howlin’ Wolf’s 1966 threat “Commit a Crime” and Magic Sam’s defining version of “All of Your Love” on his 1967 landmark, West Side Soul. In fact, the younger Stones couldn’t have tackled Jimmy Reed’s 1957 lament “Little Rain” like the slow, advancing storm here. Watts comes in like stoic resignation, on brushed snare, under rolling clouds of guitar; Jagger fires lightning streaks of harp. It’s barely a song – six lines of determined yearning and time running out. But it is dense with lesson, a reflection of the grip and wisdom that, for every bluesman, only comes with miles and age.