Legends revisit blues roots for impromptu passion project

You can’t trust Ronnie Wood with a secret. Pressed on the red carpet at the opening of The Rolling Stones’ immense and impressive Exhibitionism show in London back in April 2016, the visibly enthused guitarist let slip that the group’s most recent recordings were covers of vintage blues songs, recorded over three days some months previously, thus blithely overthrowing the heightened confidentiality surrounding their first album release since 2005’s ‘A Bigger Bang’.

His uncontainable excitement was palpable, no doubt inspired by the spontaneity of the sessions for what turned out to be ‘Blue And Lonesome’, their impulsive conception presumably somewhat at odds with the meticulous and complex running of the Stones’ well-oiled machine.

Gathering at British Grove Studios in Chiswick last December, the Stones were ignited by their warm-up jams on old blues favourites, and duly set up equipment in the round to face off on an exercise to revisit the very treasures that first served to unite the teenage enthusiasts in the early-’60s.

Hearing these songs for the first time, you can sense the regard in which the originals are held - these versions are injected with an instinctive reverence only acquired from a lifetime of study and devotion - but what’s most evident is the inherent joy in those live recordings: the raw, uninhibited sound of old friends reminiscing on their first love.

It begins with the succinct romp of lead single ‘Just Your Fool’, which is dominated - naturally, since it’s a take on Little Walter - by Mick Jagger’s fulsome harmonica. Reportedly the chief architect behind this dedicated blues tribute and main supplier of song suggestions, Jagger immediately establishes the impassioned tone of the album, wherein capturing its ingenuous spirit was paramount.

Mick is suitably blustering, in fine Howlin’ Wolf style, on ‘Commit A Crime’, and seriously yearning in ‘Blue And Lonesome’ - his emphatic pines bolstered by Ronnie’s forceful licks.

The slow barroom shuffle of Magic Sam’s ‘All Your Love’ is pure, bourbon-soaked despair - Keith Richards and Ronnie trading spare, expressive riffs rather than filling space with unnecessary notes - and is countered by the impetuous ‘I Gotta Go’ that follows, underpinned by Charlie Watts’ crisp, relentless beat.

‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’ boasts a guest slot from Eric Clapton, whose polished fingerwork shines through the song’s rough edges. Eddie Taylor’s 1955 track ‘Ride ’Em On Down’ is ripe for a Stones reworking - its brash mettle sounding not unlike the effrontery as heard on their earliest albums.

Jagger’s breathless intonations rock Little Walter’s ‘Hate To See You Go’, while ‘Hoodoo Blues’ finds the 73-year-old peddling a mean ol’ growl. The guitarists drive Jimmy Reed’s ‘Little Rain’ with tight, restrained riffs - Charlie’s sinister brushes flick and spit - turning into that deft, fiery Stones weave in ‘Just Like I Treat You’, where Keith and Ronnie take turns to let rip.

‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ draws the album to a smoky close, its menacing groove playfully provoked by Jagger’s teasing howls, and the return of Clapton’s effortless and mellifluous support.

There’s an unrefined quality to the album - a slight distortion to proceedings - that suggests even the producer, Don Was, was indulging too much in the natural order of the day to notice his EQ needles touching the red. It evokes the primitive studio methods of Chicago’s Chess Records, where most of these songs first found life, and reinforces the Stones’ unsophisticated approach without sounding forced or artificial.

Some would say an album of covers is a lazy step for bands to make, but ‘Blue And Lonesome’ is an entirely logical and timely release for The Rolling Stones, who forged their reputation by replicating and acknowledging these very artists long before they’d developed their own songwriting skills. These cuts - not to be found on any Greatest Hits collections - are the choices of skilled and discerning aficionados, and once again provide a foot in the door for anyone curious enough to venture deeper into the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.

If it’s a stopgap between albums, so be it, but I’d wager ‘Blue And Lonesome’ will stand out as more honest, more rousing and more representative of The Rolling Stones as septuagenarians than anything that might follow. I’d hope, of course, that this impulsive endeavor might beget an album of originals that picks up from this deep well of inspiration, but, as they did once warn, you can’t always get what you want.

8/10

Words: Simon Harper

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