I have a recording somewhere of Howlin’ Wolf teaching Mick Jagger and some of the rest of the Rolling Stones “Little Red Rooster.” Listening to the process was an eye opener for me, not only because of the respect offered to Howlin’ Wolf by the young Rolling Stones at the time, but the no-nonsense way in which Wolf taught them the piece – and the quality when they played it. I have always felt a certain bluesiness in many of the Rolling Stones numbers and now here is an entire Stones’ album centered on just that.
Blue and Lonesome is gorgeous listening. It opens with “Just Your Fool,” all harmonica and guitars into which the vocals are inserted with a typical blues-based story of lost love. Jagger’s vocals suit the blues and the twangy nuances in his voice – often a point of annoyance – are perfect here. “Commit a Crime” is more in tune with true blues with the emphasis on the off-beats, which give it a laid back tone far more suited to the lyrics here. A tale of poisoned love, this is a great number and there is some great guitar work in the back set – of course, given the players.
The title track “Blue and Lonesome” is announced by guitars before the vocals enter and the theme is sleaze, laid-back rhythmic blues of the old style. There is great juxtapositioning of the rhythm between the drum and guitar with the drum emphasizing the blues beat and the guitar the second and fourth as in standard rock music. It works really well. Slow, slinky and twangy: This is how rock-blues should be, and here the Rolling Stones show how closely related the genres are.
“All of Your Love” is slow, with a beautiful driving blues bass line in the background walking up, down and around the vocals which Mick Jagger delivers in his own inimitable style. The piano solo is placed perfectly over the base. A beautiful song, making great use of the talents of the band, from mouth organ to piano to bass – wonderful. “I Gotta Go” has a far more open sound, almost tinny and dominated by superb harmonica yet it has a real rock feel and is fun to listen to. “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” is slow, slinky and very, very laid back with a guitar-led opening leading to impressive vocals and a great middle section with all the instruments.
“Ride ‘Em On Down” ups the temp and rocks its way through all (almost) three minutes, and “Hate to See You Go” is heavier, led by the mouth organ and a simple song, made into something more intrinsic by the use of creative vocals and lyrics. Some subtle but very clever playing with the rhythms, hanging back on the beats, make this stand out from the ordinary.
“Hoo Doo Blues” is deep, sleazy and slick, and there are tones of John Lee Hooker or maybe Mr. Wolf in there with Jagger’s lower notes and the structure of the song. It is followed by “Little Rain,” which is short, sweet and emotive, telling the tale of nature keeping on doing its thing whilst love dies and goes sour. “Just Like I Treat You” is a tale of in-fighting of lovers, and is followed by “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” which finishes Blue and Lonesome. This is another slow blues-y number, and is the only one longer than five minutes on the whole album. Telling the story of messed up love, it includes a great middle section, led by guitar, over which Mick Jagger whoops and interjects on occasion. This track stretches Jagger’s vocals, which verge on the screechy but the song is fine.
Much of the music on Blue and Lonesome sounds familiar, even though most hasn’t been played by the Rolling Stones before – and this is possibly because much of their hard grinding, devastating rock music is centered on blues rhythms and chords. The Stones have the blues in their blood. They come from an era where blues, rock and jazz were melding into rock music, and they went to the States at the right time to still catch major players and benefit from being able to have sessions with them. Naturally, the blues surfaces in many of their songs.
Here, they pay respect to their blues influences. Mick was impacted by Little Richard and other musicians like Muddy Waters as a young man, and many of the Rolling Stones’ early hits were heavily blues influenced. They still display a talent for the genre in many ways which has not been lost. Rock, of course, was where the Stones proved themselves high-hitting icons but blues they can do and do well. Mick Jagger’s vocals are suited to blues, in spite of being higher in pitch than most blues singers. He slides notes naturally and therefore covers the blues notes hidden in the chords plus some.
Behind him are musicians with blues and rock in their veins, and this matches them perfectly. Many of the tracks could sit on a non-blues Rolling Stones album, but it is good they are here, together under the same pin-name. There is an effervescence and a sense of fun throughout Blue and Lonesome which makes it entirely listenable. Also, and this is something I was surprised at, the Rolling Stones show immense respect for the blues formulation. Songs are short, tell a story and follow the typical later blues format – which, for this writer at least, gets them due respect as they could have made it “Stones Blues” with no loss in revenue. But they didn’t, and that is a good thang!
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