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The Stones dig deep into their roots

Their latest album is their first pure cover of old blues songs. And it’s brilliant

brunch Updated: Mar 22, 2017 11:34 IST
the rolling stones

The Rolling Stones, who turned 54 this year, have for the first time dropped an album with covers of old blues songs(Getty Images)

Most Rolling Stones fans know that the deep roots of that enduring band’s music lie in the blues. Even before the Stones first took shape in 1962, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, then still in their teens, had a short-lived band that was known as the Blue Boys and played songs by American bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley as well as early rock and rollers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The Blue Boys quickly evolved into The Rolling Stones, a band that has incredibly managed to keep rocking, gigging and recording for more than 50 years. For the record, the Stones turned 54 this year and for the first time in their career, they recently dropped an album with songs that are all covers of old blues songs. Blue & Lonesome is their 25th full-length studio recording and you could say it’s also a tribute to the music and musicians that inspired them and got them started.

Blue & Lonesome came out early this month and the 12 songs that the Stones have covered are by blues greats such as Buddy Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Little Walter and others. Many of these bluesmen lived and played in the 1940s and ’50s; and several of them represent what is known as the Chicago blues; but as Mick Jagger said in a recent interview, many of the songs chosen for the new album have even older roots – adapted by successive generations of blues musicians. That interview – by Matt Wilkinson, a British RJ who does a regular show on Apple’s Beats1 Radio – is a must-watch for Stones’ fans (the video is online and Wilkinson talks to, besides Jagger and Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts, who make up the current line-up of the Stones).

The Stones have an average age of around 72 now – Watts is the oldest at 75 and Wood the youngest at 69. But it is Richards, 72, and Jagger, 73 (already a great-grandfather, he became a father again this month!) who are the most famous Stones. Blue & Lonesome, according to the two, happened out of thin air. The band has a habit of playing old blues songs together in the studio as a form of relaxation but over three days in December last year, those sessions became an album.

The blues have a lot (if not everything) to do with the very existence of the Stones but the blues as a genre have a lot to thank the Stones about too. It is ironic but when the British band began covering old blues songs (and writing their own blues-inspired ones) in their early days, it actually revived the genre and brought it back to mainstream – in America. Richards recalls how Muddy Waters once thanked him for what the band had done for the blues. The Stones were not the only British musicians that had been heavily influenced by American blues. There were others such as John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Peter Green and so on. But the Stones, because of their popularity, fame and long-lasting success, were probably at the forefront of the blues revival – of drawing white audiences to a genre that was hitherto mainly patronised by African-Americans.

The Stones have covered blues songs throughout their career. Several of their albums have had a song or two by blues greats. On Sticky Fingers, You Gotta Move is a song by Mississippi Fred McDowell; on Let It Bleed, Love in Vain is by Robert Johnson; on Exile on Main Street, there are songs by Slim Harpo and another one of Johnson’s; on Beggar’s Banquet, Prodigal Son is actually by Reverend Robert Wilkins; and Rock Me Baby on Live Licks is a BB King song. But on Blue & Lonesome it is different. The band has chosen not-so-well-known tracks by old bluesmen and they’ve played them as a true-blooded blues band would. Jagger who is a great blues harp player, plays solo harmonica licks on almost every track; check him out particularly on the Little Walter song, I Gotta Go. Richard and Wood’s guitars weave in and out of each other’s riffs; and on two songs, Eric Clapton plays the guitar. According to lore, Clapton was recording in London’s British Grove Studio around the time the Stones were there and he dropped by with his contribution!

Blue & Lonesome has become a staple fare of my daily musical diet and even after weeks of replaying it I foresee it becoming one of those permanent go-to albums that you reach for when you want to listen to something great.

Tailpiece: It’s been a horrid year, 2016. We lost so many great musicians: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Phife Dawg, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell… to name just a few. Some, such as Bowie and Cohen, left soon after giving us their last albums, brilliant ones. It is heartening, therefore, to hear that none other than the man whose name is synonymous with “rock ‘n’ roll” is not only alive and kicking but will give us a new album soon. Chuck Berry, who is 90, will release a new album in 2017. It will be called Chuck. I can’t wait. Long live rock ‘n’ roll!

From HT Brunch, December 18, 2016

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