The Rolling Stones revive roots with album Blue & Lonesome

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Blue & Lonesome, which released on Dec. 2, is the Rolling Stones’ first album to completely comprise of cover songs. It is not very often that a band continuously remains relevant and in the public eye for an overly extended period of time. British long runners the Rolling Stones have weathered 50 plus years of lineup changes, ever-changing music tastes with the record-buying public and often incredibly turbulent inner band relations. After 11 years, the longest gap in between studio albums in the history of the Rolling Stones, the band has returned with a brand new record, Blue & Lonesome.

It is the 25th U.S. and 23rd in England studio album in the Stones’ catalog and the fourth to feature the band as a quartet. But compared to recent releases from the band, this new disc sees the band go all the way back to its roots literally and figuratively. For the first time since 1965’s Out of Our Heads, cover songs make up a bulk of the track listing. Also for the first time ever in the band’s history, there are no original compositions from lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. Living up to the name, there are nothing but blues covers from front to back. Given that the band, Richards above all, drew both the band’s sound and even its name from the great blues musicians of the past, a full-blown return to the blues was bound to happen. One could even say that this is the swan song of the Rolling Stones as a whole. Blues rock in general has always remained prevalent in the music world in some way or another.

After the days of the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream brought a blues-inspired rock sound to the mainstream. The trend is continued with newer acts like Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark Jr. and Rival Sons, albeit with a modern twist that fuses it with elements of alternative rock and even modern hip hop. While the Rolling Stones’ traditional approach to the blues may seem old by 2016 standards, one has to remember that the band came from an era when blues was considered a niche musical genre in both the United States and England. From the first track to the very last, the album gives off a very low-end vibe in both its performances and production. According to the band, it was recorded in only three days, an all-time record for the Rolling Stones.

A lot of the songs come off less like a meticulously rehearsed performance and more like a long on the fly jam session that the producers recorded in its entirety before selecting the best covers for the album. All of the bells and whistles of previous albums like the deviations to trending sounds and slow ballads have been discarded entirely. The band is just putting its legacy behind it for a fleeting moment to pay tribute to the very acts that contributed to its initial success on both sides of the Atlantic. Classic R&B artists like Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Buddy Johnson and Willie Dixon are all represented on the record. The Rolling Stones’ renditions of their songs are just as raw and gritty as one could imagine them being. Jagger’s vocals and harmonica playing brings the sexual tension and ferocity that defined him as one of England’s greatest blues singers.

The guitar playing of Richards and Ron Wood is just as aggressive and emotional as it has ever been, with the latter doing his own thing while simultaneously respecting the legacies of both the blues men and the late founding Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. Long runner Charlie Watts on drums still provides the simple yet effective beat that drives the band’s R&B sound. In lieu of original bass guitarist Bill Wyman and late pianist and organist Ian Stewart, their replacements—Darryl Jones, Matt Clifford and Chuck Leavell, respectively—do a good job of filling in the gap while paying tribute to their original contributions. The biggest surprise, however, comes in the form of guitar legend Eric Clapton.

Hot off the heels of what appears to be his swan song album, I Still Do, Clapton appears on two tracks. He performs slide guitar on “Everybody Knows My Good Thing” and guitar on the blues standard “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” On the latter song, Clapton’s presence alongside Richards and Wood helps put their version alongside famous renditions of the song from the likes of John Mayall and Led Zeppelin.

Whether this album is a mere stop gap until the next original Rolling Stones album or a sign that the band is gradually slowing down, Blue & Lonesome is a very satisfying “back to their roots” album that sees a long running band take a look back at where it came from and who helped it get to the top.

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