When the pressure is off, when you’ve got nothing to lose, when you’ve already proven yourself countless times over – that tends to be when you fall back on doing the things that please you the most.
In the case of the Rolling Stones, this means playing the blues in their own inimitably scruffy fashion, celebrating the music that turned them on and urged them to throw their own hat into the ring as teenagers.
“Blue & Lonesome” (Polydor) is really the result of a happy accident. The Stones – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, and supporting players Darryl Jones (bass) and Chuck Leavell (keys) – have been chipping away at new original material for a while. But one day last December, they decided to warm up in the studio with a bunch of old blues nuggets. Three days later, they had a whole album’s worth of gritty takes on the true, deep American electric blues – tunes by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Buddy Johnson, and Little Walter, among others.
That brisk recording time, the air of “Don’t fix what ain’t broke,” and the raw, primal, under-produced nature of the project collided to make this the best slab of studio Stones in a few decades – a blink of an eye in terms of the band’s longevity.
But still. You get the point. This is the sound of the good ol’ Strollin’ Bones doing what they’ve always done best – paying tribute to the African American electric blues-men responsible for giving them the raw materials to become one of the biggest bands in the history of recorded music.
One has the sense that Richards was the prime mover behind this project. He’s been griping about Jagger’s seeming reluctance to play the blues harp for decades, and much to what we can assume was his delight, “Blue & Lonesome” is overflowing with Jagger’s on-point harmonica playing. He is the featured soloist on nearly every track, notable exceptions being Eric Clapton’s sterling cameo during “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and Wood’s endearingly sloppy and searing lead work on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime.”
Jagger, who has long been the focal point of some Stones fans’ ire as the man who pushes the band toward the contemporary strains of the popular music of the day – be it the disco grooves of “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue” way back when, or the mild Hip-Hop underpinning more (relatively) recent fare, a la “Anybody Seen My Baby?” – seems to exult in indulging in the filthy Chicago blues that is the band’s default position here. He sounds like he’s having a blast throughout, and as a result, the singing here is his most unstudied and lacking in self-consciousness in a good long while.
The band takes its cue from Jagger, and lets it all hang out. There are occasional fluctuations in tempo as Watts and presumably Richards seek to settle the band into the proper tempo, there are fluffed notes, there’s studio noise and chatter, and there is always an ambiance that makes the listener feel like they've stumbled into a boozy, late-night Stones rehearsal or an after-hours jam.
If this indeed turns out to be the last time, it’s fitting that the Stones have come full circle, back to the raw blues.
If you’re a fan, do yourself a favor – drop the extra bucks on a vinyl copy. You’ll hear the Stones the way God and Keith have always intended them to be heard.