One of the more interesting and longer-running feuds in rock and roll was re-energized last year when Paul McCartney said the Beatles were better than the Rolling Stones, partly because the Stones were just a “blues cover band”. Once you listen to the album “Blue and Lonesome”, a sentiment many of us who listen to the blues can relate to, you realize Paul may have been right and wrong at the same time. Obviously, the Stones have had much more to offer than cover tunes in their almost 60 (!) year career, but this this vintage revisit of their roots, with twelve remarkable blues cover tunes reinforces not only their greatness but their unbelievable staying power as a band.
Many of the “classic” rock artists continue to record to this day. McCartney and Ringo, Robert Plant, The Who, Elton John, and yes, the Stones, among many others, but their current music never sees the light of day on classic rock radio, and when playing in concert, it is these new songs that often represent bathroom breaks for fans waiting impatiently for the “classic hits”. I’ve always felt this to be a bit close-minded and unfair, because many of these artists, well beyond the ones I listed above, are still making interesting and relevant music today, even if it goes largely unnoticed. For some reason, Ozzy Osbourne, of all musicians, seems to be the only artist from that era to get frequent airtime with new material. More power to him, and for what it is worth, he did come out with a pretty impressive track featuring Jeff Beck just this year.
Anyway, once in very rare moment, one of these acts brings something forward uniquely enjoyable, and I don’t think there is a record released by any classic rock artist in the last ten years that rivals “Blue and Lonesome”. If you listen to this album, co-produced by Don Was, it is as if you are magically transported back to 1964 and their first album. Mick Jagger’s vocals are unbelievably vital, and although his core range was never as wide as someone like McCartney, Plant or Elton, his delivery in his late 70s sounds somehow unchanged through 60 years of performing. Just as it was in the beginning, his harmonica is also central to their blues foundation. As timeless as Jagger is, if you see him onstage, his “moves like Jagger” haven’t lost a step either. Keith Richards and Ron Wood do the majority of the heavy lifting on guitar, with one very special guest appearance, and perhaps most endearing of all, Charlie Watts is outstanding in his last studio album recording.
Back to the Beatles vs. the Stones for just a moment, my friend Mike posed that question to me a while ago, and my first-response answer still stands to this day. If we are judging on their work in the studio alone, I have to give the nod to the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, with Harrison bringing his own gifts to the party. However, if we are talking a live performance, there is a reason so many consider the Rolling Stones the greatest rock and roll band of all time. The beauty of “Blue and Lonesome” is that it is a studio album that sounds like it could be and should be a live performance, and it was in fact recorded in just three days, the way it used to be done by acts of this caliber.
There isn’t a weak link on this album and every song is a gift to any blues-based Stones fan. The album opens with a rocking up-tempo blues beat that was released as a single, “Just Your Fool” by Little Walter. Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Otis Hicks, Jimmy Reed and the legendary Willie Dixon all see their songs surface here, and I love that several of these artists reconnect this blog with its earliest roots, completing the circle with an album released in 2016.
While I will sing the praises of the entire record, there are two songs I have to specifically single out for consideration. I didn’t know it at that time, but it isn’t surprising to me looking back on it, that these are the two songs that also feature Eric Clapton on slide and lead guitar. What a masterpiece these songs are to enjoy. “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing”, written by Miles Grayson and Lermon Horton, is almost too good to be true, and while Clapton is in top form, Matt Clifford also stands out on piano, and Charlie Watts almost steals the show with his unusually thunderous back beat. No matter how much I already praised his work, you have to acknowledge how good Jagger is on this song as well.
The album concludes with Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, a song that immediately recaptures my attention as a track Led Zeppelin also covered on their first album. No matter how biased I may be towards their version, there is no denying how great this effort is, once again featuring Clapton on lead. And as much as one is tempted to compare two great covers of this song, you can’t ignore the fact that the Stones took their run at this song in their mid 70s. The power and force of Mick, backed by the subtleness of Keith Richards and Ron Wood wrapping their magic around Clapton’s lead, is truly a spectacle to be taken in. I spent the night listening to and comparing both performances, and then going all the way back to Willie Dixon for his original home run. Some nights you just need the blues, and this was a good night to reconnect with some of my favorite music of my past.
Of all people, it was my son who originally turned me on to this album. I know my friend Jim is also a devoted advocate for this record as well. If you have even a hint of appreciation for old British rock blues, you can’t go wrong with “Blue and Lonesome”. The musical world now belongs to a new, different and very capable generation, but I’m grateful the Stones were able to deliver a new album of old songs that reminds us all where it all started so many years ago.