Skeptics are wise not to view Jagger, Richards and the rest as anything less than the consummate rockers they are.
Blues and Lonesome wouldn’t have to be very good to be the best thing that the Rolling Stones have done in over 20 years. The group’s last studio outing, 2005’s A Bigger Bang was swollen beyond acceptable proportions with too much monkey business; its predecessor, 1997’s Bridges to Babylon could have been trimmed down to portions more slender and digestible, though it still provided evidence of artists with something to say. Though there are some who are willing to pound nails into the Stones coffin with hammers larger than most of the buildings in the Manhattan skyline, this offering, comprised entirely of blues covers, suggests that the show ain’t over yet.
A spiritual companion to the 2015 solo effort from Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart, this is Jagger, Richards, Watts, Wood and longtime bassist Darryl Jones settling into the stuff that made the lads great in the first place. There are no concessions to EDM or dubstep, the kinds of things that would have probably choked the life out of a regular Stones record, and the cuts here are unburdened by the gents preening for hipness.
“Just Your Fool,” “Commit a Crime” and “I Gotta Go” have enough grit and grease behind them that you can almost smell Richards’ cigarettes burning and feel the heat of the amps. There’s nothing as woefully loose as the darkest alleyways of Exile on Main Street but neither is there anything as tense and over-thought as on records such as Undercover.
The focus is on Chicago blues, the stuff that brought Mick and Keith together all those years ago and was celebrated in the earliest recordings from the Rolling Stones. Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam and Willie Dixon are all represented in the writing credits and for the listener who probably knows the blues best by what’s been covered ten thousand fold at Tuesday bar jams, these run fairly deep.
Familiarity doesn’t stop “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from roasting like a July 4 barbecue as Eric Clapton steps up to deliver the kind of solo we’ve been waiting years to hear from him. In fact, his performance there and on “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” raises plenty of questions about why he hasn’t been invited out to partake in some proper gigs with the Mick and Co.
Jagger himself sounds perfectly fit and fine here, never forcing himself upon the material or giving a sense that he has anything other than deep reverence for “Ride ‘Em on Down” or “Hate to See You Go.” He’s never had the voice of an angel (quite the contrary) and so in some ways these songs probably suit him better now than they ever have. He doesn’t play guitar here, for the first time in decades, leaving it up to Woods and Richards, who are perfectly capable of raising blisters in the ears of fans worldwide via “Just Like I Treat You” and “Hoo Doo Blues” Watts is his ever-unobtrusive self and Jones, who should by all rights be a full-fledged member now, demonstrates that he is as capable a bassist as the others could ever hope to find.
At 42 minutes, Blues and Lonesome doesn’t wear out its welcome and the absence of anyone or anything on the recording that doesn’t belong is proof positive that the Stones have taken one of the best steps they could toward preserving their legacy as one of rock’s greatest bands.
This probably isn’t the swan song. The word is that the decision to go forward with a blues record came when they stalled on a batch of new material in early 2016. That may have been the best thing to have happened in the camp for quite some time. Not only did it give us a chance to hear them without extra cooks in the kitchen, it also suggests that for the first time in a very long time, the Rolling Stones are in the unenviable position of having to top themselves.
Blue and Lonesome isn’t just a good late-career recording, it’s a good, not great, effort from this band from any stage in its career that may lack the danger of Sticky Fingers and the like but makes up for that in sheer know-how. This is a reminder that skeptics are wise not to view Jagger, Richards and the rest as anything less than the consummate rockers they are.