November 25, 2016
As the final song on the new Rolling Stones album ends, an escalating slow-burn on Willie Dixon's "I Can't Quit You Baby," Charlie Watts' drums rumble amid the buzz and hum of the amplifiers. A raspy voice exults during the fade — "Yeah, boys!" — followed by laughter.
In the late stages of a career that spans more than 50 years, the Stones have just about run out of surprises. But the Chicago blues they studied as kids growing up in London will always be with them, and it's only fitting that the forthcoming "Blue & Lonesome" (Interscope), due out Dec. 2, is dedicated to that lifelong devotion. It marks the first Stones studio album in 11 years, and features all cover versions of songs to which the band owes its very existence.
In October 1961, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger bumped into one another at a train station outside London. Jagger had a collection of Chess Records albums imported from Chicago under his arm, and Richards was intrigued that this casual acquaintance turned out to be a blues acolyte just like he was. Less than a year later they played their first gig together at the Marquee Club in London as the Rollin' Stones, named after a Muddy Waters' song. They were students as much as musicians.
Jagger was learning how to play blues harp by religiously listening to the Chess albums of Little Walter, and Richards and his roommate, Stones guitarist Brian Jones, would huddle next to a speaker of their cheap little record player and listen to the recordings of Waters or Jimmy Reed. They were fascinated at how the bands of these Chicago blues giants often sounded like a single instrument. As Richards wrote in his 2010 autobiography, "Life": "You're looking to distort things, basically. … the sounds just melt into one another and you've got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through."
In the beginning, the Stones wanted nothing more than to be a blues band. And for a long time, they were — albeit one that realized it could never, ever be as good as the musicians who schooled them from overseas. Dixon once told the Tribune that he remembered playing Piccadilly Square in London during the early '60s. The callow Jagger, Richards and Jones were in the audience. "(These kids would) tell us, 'Look, man, we got a little group and we want to do some of your songs,'" Dixon said. "We put a lot of songs on tape for them ... and then some years later, somebody played me a record of (Dixon's classic) 'Little Red Rooster' and told me some fellows called the Rolling Stones had done that song out of England. ... (But) back then they were just little kids, no hair on their faces or anything, so how would I remember them?"
The Stones early albums were stuffed with cover versions of American blues and soul music, and as soon as the quintet became popular enough to tour America in the late spring of 1964, they beelined to Chess studios in Chicago for a two-day recording session. There they were greeted by the mighty Waters himself, who, according to the oft-repeated story, was slapping a coat of paint on the studio walls. Waters had no idea who these long-haired kids were, but helped them unload their gear anyway. While there, the Stones recorded the master's "I Can't Be Satisfied," which appeared on their second album, "Rolling Stones No. 2," while Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" wound up on its U.K. companion, "Rolling Stones Now!"
The Stones early recordings — newly reissued on the boxed set "The Rolling Stones in Mono" (ABKCO) — affirm how much the Stones borrowed from the Chicago blues: the songs, the mix of jazzy swing and backstreet menace, even the recording engineer, Ron Malo. All told the Stones recorded more than two dozen songs in three visits to Chess studios in 1964-65, which they sprinkled across several albums. Long afterward, the Stones continued to record blues covers and perform them in concert. But they'd never devoted an entire album to their obsession — until now.
"Blue and Lonesome" came out of a three-day session in London last December after the recording of a new studio album of Stones originals stalled. The Stones decided to warm up with the music they know best and ended up recording an entire album of songs that are part of their musical DNA. The music was largely cut live on the floor of Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios in London with producer Don Was, and its unvarnished tone approaches the feel of the tracks the band cut at Chess 52 years ago.
In the intervening decades, the Stones have learned a few things about an art form created by Southern blacks who migrated North in the middle of the last century. Jagger was often self-deprecating about his blues-inspired vocals, fully aware that there was no way he could possibly match the intensity or experience of the singers whose personal hardships informed the way they performed. As a result, he would often put his own outlandish spin on his blues-inspired songs, exaggerating and mugging, especially in concert. The Stones were never as academic or self-serious as some of the other white British blues bands, led by Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies.
But the Jagger on "Blue & Lonesome" is 73, three years older than Waters was when he died in 1983, and Richards is 72, Watts 75 and guitarist Ronnie Wood 69. In a sense, the Stones have become their elders, and their seasoning as a first-rate blues band is evident.
What's more, the new album upends the Jagger narrative that has taken hold in recent decades. The singer has been cast as the pin cushion for a lot of the Stones' musical indifference since the 1970s watershed "Some Girls" — he was ridiculed by Richards in "Life," and is generally seen as the Stones' preening celebrity and resident businessman, in opposition to the more "authentic" Richards, the quintessential rock 'n' roll outlaw. If so, "Blue & Lonesome" is Jagger's vindication.
When Jagger sings "Baby, please come on home to me" on Little Walter's title song, his voice breaks on "please" — a yowl from the gut that a more precious singer might've wanted to retake. He shades the lines on Magic Sam's "All of Your Love" with eroticism or wistfulness in the way he stretches or compresses the syllables. For Lightnin' Slim's "Hoo Doo Blues" he brings a more subdued, sinister tone to the thick, swampy groove. His harp playing turns downright nasty — that's the only way to describe the drone he blasts out over a relentless Watts drum groove on another Little Walter track, "Hate to See You Go."
As for the band itself, it lives by Richards' law of the blues: "you're looking to distort things … the sounds just melt into one another and you've got that beat behind it." Watts' crash cymbal ratchets up the chaos on Howlin' Wolf's unforgiving "Commit a Crime" — it's the kind of song played in a bar where everyone is carrying a switchblade for their own protection. "Just Your Fool" turns the mix of Jagger's harp and the rhythm guitars of Wood and Richards into a freight train, ornamented by Chuck Leavell's piano fills, straight out of the Otis Spann playbook.
This is not a pretty or comforting album. Even Eric Clapton gets in the spirit. Clapton's polished takes on his beloved blues have made most of his recent albums forgettable, but his solo on Little Johnny Taylor's "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing" turns the song's air of paranoia into a five-alarm fire. The arrangement drops off a cliff, and Jagger re-enters. Like the savvy blues disciple he is, he knows not to try to top Clapton's moment. So instead he underplays it, growling and purring over the subtle organ and piano backdrop.
"Call me a plumber, darlin', there must be a leak in my drain," he sings. You can almost see his eyes rolling at the delicious double entendre in the Miles Grayson-Lermon Horton composition. It's the kind of performance that testifies eloquently to the mystery and permanence of an art form that will outlast its makers and the bands like the Stones who not only embraced and learned from it, but endured long enough to eventually embody it themselves.