It’s been over a decade since The Rolling Stones’ last studio album, maybe three since one, Tattoo You ‘81, managed to force a song (‘Start Me Up’) into their mammoth set list. With a combined age of 289 they’ve decided to throw their hat at writing new material and have released Blue and Lonesome, a record full of their favourite old blues tunes. All the best blues names are present, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Slim the only thing missing is a bit of Blind Lemon or Anosmatic Watermelon.
Given their inactivity over the last decade this could well be the Stones’ final record. That would be quite fitting, going out as they came in, paying homage to the black musicians they dragged from beneath the rug of America. Keith Richards’ 2015 solo offering Crosseyed Heart was very well received both critically and commercially, the band have taken the same loose approach to recording this record. Age may be stunting the creative process when it comes to writing new songs but it’s only served to make them all the more potent as a dirty little dive bar blues band.
They’ve avoided most of the really well known blues standards like ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ or ‘Smokestack Lightning’. Even if the titles here aren’t immediately familiar the rhythms and licks are ingrained in the subconscious of anyone who’s been exposed to a radio in the past 80 odd years. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood’s serpentine guitar lines, given the freedom to maraud around within the confines of some of their favourite tunes, sound better than ever. Mick Jagger is on form too, his vocal performances less contrived when he’s doffing his cap to the greats rather than trying to compete with Justin Timberlake. Old ‘Big Balls’ plays a mean blues harmonica on Blues and Lonesome, too.
Poking fun at the Stones over the years has been easy, Mick has brought much of it on himself by gradually morphing into his Spitting Image puppet. The fact that Richards has managed to evade the cold clutches of death for so long given the life he’s led is humorous in itself but they’ve lasted. Like the first sheet of wallpaper applied to a virgin wall, you can peel little corners off, make tears (Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman) but it still clings on for dear life.
Blue and Lonesome is recorded within the parameters of the band’s original members with one or two supplementary keyboards and some percussion. It isn’t going to reinvent the wheel, but like your uncle arm wrestling at your cousins wedding the Stones are just showing that they’ve still got their chops, flexing. Songs like ‘Just a Fool’, ‘Commit a Crime’, ‘Hoodoo Blues’ and ‘Little Rain’ stand out, but in truth it all depends on whether you prefer the rock or the roll, the rhythm or the blues.