Friday, December 02, 2016

The Rolling Stones' New Blues: Inside Their Roots Revival, Bright Future

November 16, 2016

September 1965. Charlie Watts steps to a microphone in a smart sport jacket, introducing "one of our favorite numbers" to a packed Dublin theater. The 24-year-old drummer heads back to his modest kit, and the Rolling Stones tumble into Howlin' Wolf's "Little Red Rooster," Keith Richards' duh-dunt-dah-duh riff battling Brian Jones' spiky slide-guitar runs. And a thousand Irish teenage girls greet each Chess Records guitar stab with crescendoing, this-song-is-so-fab shrieks. (Later, the audience will embark on an actual riot, storming the stage, which just makes it a typical Stones tour stop.)
Ten months earlier, the band had somehow managed to push that raw take on 12-bar Chicago blues atop the U.K. singles chart (though U.S. radio refused to play it, suspecting that the lyrics' prowling rooster was not, in fact, a bird). "Little Red Rooster" is apparently still the only traditional blues ever to hit Number One in the U.K. "It's crackers," Mick Jagger says five decades later, on a late-October day in Manhattan, pondering that achievement, recalling those screams. He laughs. "You know, it's crazy. I mean, that was a weirdo thing, 'cause we could've done anything at that time and it would've been Number One. That was the point." He's wearing a white button-front shirt with a subtle blue pattern and teensy black trousers that are probably the same waist size as his checkered pants on that Irish stage 51 years back. He looks his age, sort of, except not at all.
As with all the Stones' early blues recordings, Jagger says that "Red Rooster" was done "out of love." "We were kids," he says, "and we were proselytizing. The Beatles, to some extent, did the same – they talked about the music they loved, which was always, like, soul music." The Stones' music was rooted more firmly in their influences, however, and they went further in honoring them. In May of '65, they strong-armed the U.S. teen TV showShindig! into hosting Howlin' Wolf himself, with the Stones sitting at the besuited, six-foot-three, 275-pound 55-year-old's feet as he bellowed "How Many More Years," jumping in place and eliciting some improbable adolescent shrieks in his own right. "When those blues records came out," says Jagger, "they were, in a sense, for their audience, pop music. They would play it like we would play Kendrick Lamar. To me, take away the genres for a minute and it's all pop music."
Now, the Stones have circled back to the blues, with Blue & Lonesome, a (mostly) live-in-the-studio collection of 12 songs originally performed by the likes of Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and, again, Howlin' Wolf. It's the first Stones album to have zero Jagger-Richards originals; even their debut had a couple of attempts at songwriting. Recording Blue & Lonesome was easy – it took all of three days. "It made itself," says Richards. As Ronnie Wood points out, however, it's also the product of "a lifetime's research, really."
Figuring out when and how to release it was trickier. "I'm saying to the record company," says Jagger, "'Can you make this pop music if you want? Is it marketable?'" The album came out of sessions that were supposed to be for an LP of Stones originals, still in its early stages. Jagger wondered whether they should wait to get that one finished, maybe release them together.
But then again, the last time the Stones managed to finish a studio album was back in 2005, with A Bigger Bang. "The record company probably said, 'Well, the other one's never gonna come,'" Jagger says, twisting those lips of his into an outsize grin. " 'We might as well put this one out.' I don't blame 'em. I probably would have done the same thing. 'Cause, 'Now I got something, might as well put it out.'"
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