Sometimes you have to disconnect from your past in order to fully explore it. That’s what the Rolling Stones have done with “Blue & Lonesome,” their first studio album in 11 years. Instead of furthering its own storied history, the vanguard rock band looks back to the DNA of what made the blood flow through its songs in the first place. It’s the source material that co-founding Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts (all in their 70s) and guitarist of 40-plus years Ron Wood (69) reach for on the album. Specifically, it’s the blues — music of simple compositional design steeped in a sense of soul so distinct and pervasive that anyone attempting such a style who is not fully versed in its emotional depth will simply come off as a pretender.
On “Blue & Lonesome,” the Stones are no pretenders.
Recorded in a period of three days with no overdubs and only modest auxiliary help (bassist DarrylJones and pianist Chuck Leavell are the key contributors), this collection of 11 blues nuggets penned or popularized by Magic Sam, Little Walter, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and the like possesses a spark that only comes from a band playing live. The Stones have almost never sounded like this on record — certainly not for the entirety of an album. There is no studio gloss, although the band never sounds scrappy. There is rawness, but the music still seems robust and complete. Above all, there is an alertness. You hear it in the ensemble gusto of Eddie Taylor’s “Ride ‘Em On Down,” a blast of Chicago blues swagger that blows in, blows up and blows away in under three minutes. But it’s as just as evident in the heavy vocal wail Jagger unleashes at the onset of the 1967 Magic Sam gem, “All of Your Love,” that slows the tempo, but not the Stones’ heavy blues sway. On the flip side, Willie Dixon’s “Just Like I Treat You” bounces around with pure juke joint glee, with the guitars of Richards and Wood rattling the music’s rhythmic cage. Throughout, though, it is drummer Watts who pilots these roots celebrations with a pulse and deep pocket groove that gives “Blue & Lonesome” much of its drive and emotive authenticity.
More than anything else, “Blue & Lonesome” is the sound of a band emancipated. Freed from the sense of commercial and critical expectation that comes with such a vast and chronicled history, the Stones honor immediacy on this almost impromptu blues soirée.
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Who knows if we will ever hear another album of new Jagger-Richards songs, especially one that can hold its own with the Stones’ mighty legacy. If one doesn’t surface, take comfort in the fact that “Blue & Lonesome” will serve as one grand wrap party.