Ah, the blues covers album. One of the most irritating affectations in the history of the record industry, it’s a sure- fire way for any given rock dinosaur to obtain some authenticity by going back to the roots (oh, hello Eric Clapton!). It’s not as cynical a move as hooking up with a symphony orchestra, announcing endless reunion tours or the abomination that is playing your classic album live from start to finish, but it’s close. And usually, the results are worthy but boring.
And because the Rolling Stones are pretty much the platonic ideal of a dinosaur, it was only a matter of time before they attempted that particular gambit. No surprises there. No, the real shock is that Blue & Lonesome is a fantastic album. The whole thing sounds like it was tossed off in an afternoon, like a rehearsal that got out of hand.
Don Was deserves some of the credit here. Instead of making them sound clean and tasteful, like most of their blues rock contemporaries, he goes for the raucous, clanging, fuzzy sound pioneered by Fat Possum Records and the band thrives in this environment. Keith and Ronnie trade chunky, cacophonous riffs like a pair of swordfighting pirates, as the microphones in the studio sound like they are about to pop. Ride ’em on Down (their version of Bukka White’s Shake ’em on Down) is for my money the sexiest song of the year. Eric Clapton (of all people) shows up in a couple of songs and meshes right in, instead of showboating.
Best of all, this is clearly Jagger’s album. Inexplicably, he shrugs off his usual pantomime and just goes for the throat. Check out the power of his performance in Howlin’ Wolf’s Commit a Crime or his horny, slithering harmonica, weaving in and out of most tracks. This is like his legendary, unreleased, Rick Rubin- produced session with the Red Devils, but with more imaginative playing. It’s life- affirming. It’s like all this mythology about the reinvigorating power of the blues is actually true.
We’ve had plenty of Stones blues material with Brian Jones and Mick Taylor. It was about time they gave us some more of the Ronnie Wood flavor as well. Yeah, it would be appropriate and poetic if they retired after this, neatly ending their career as they started it, with blues pilgrimages. But we all know that until they drop dead, they’ll continue rolling, like it or not. Seriously though, they have no business sounding so energised on their 25th studio album. Long may they reign.