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May 8, 2017

On ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ The Rolling Stones pay tribute to their roots

the-rolling-stones

Widely cited as the pinnacle of rock ’n’ roll for the past half century, The Rolling Stones have returned with authority on their first new studio release in over a decade. In a way, “Blue and Lonesome,” their new album of blues covers, is a testament to how the band has come full circle.

Before delving into the album itself, it is worth noting that the Stones recorded it in just three days, a refreshing move for a band whose most recent releases have been marked by overproduction. That said though, Keith Richards—the band’s seemingly immortal guitarist—has described the band’s songwriting process as “something that pops off the fingers,” so spontaneity is really nothing new for them.

Though the band’s earliest releases consisted primarily of covers, “Blue and Lonesome,” released Dec. 2, is the band’s first full album entirely of them. Its 12 tracks feature an eclectic mix of different blues artists, ranging from the likes of Buddy Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, to Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon.

The influence of traditional blues on The Rolling Stones is no mystery, nor is its sound anything new in their music. They were originally more of a straight blues and R&B group than a rock band, but even their most acclaimed works—such as 1969’s “Let it Bleed” and 1972’s “Exile on Main Street”—are still heavily influenced by the blues form.

Though every track the band tackles on this record had its commercial heyday more than half a century ago, it’s a creatively clever move on the Stones’ part to shine a light on blues artists that in many ways have long been forgotten. The title track was recorded in 1949. Another track, “Ride ‘Em On Down,” was originally recorded under the title “Shake ‘Em On Down” in 1937. With their ferocious, faithful covers, the Stones bring these classics roaring back to life.

When listening to “Blue and Lonesome,” one can’t help but want to listen to the original recordings just to see if there is any overlap, but, while the album is fairly faithful, there are significant differences. Having played together for over 50 years, the Stones have their own, unique way of playing, and they don’t hesitate to inject their own style into these songs that they so clearly love.

While “Blue and Lonesome” can be seen as the Stones playing tribute to the artists that came before them, it can also be seen as the band opening the door to these songs for fans who may not have previously heard them.

But, just as the Stones have discussed the ways in which they have been and continue to be influenced by the blues, they too have influenced the way we understand this music. One could say it’s the blues with a twist.

There have been questions as to whether the album’s release will be followed by another concert tour. Earlier this year, the band toured South and Central America, in addition to performing a high-profile concert in Havana, Cuba—the first major international rock concert in the country since the United States lifted trade sanctions against the country. The band also headlined the Desert Trip festival with Roger Waters and Paul McCartney in October.

Tour or no tour though, “Blue and Lonesome” is captivating, even riveting at some points. The 42-minute album is sequential only in so far as their style of playing allows for each track to lead into the next, allowing the listener to understand bit by bit how the Rolling Stones evolved from their roots into the legendary musical powerhouse known throughout the world.

Isaac Simon can be reached at isimon@umass.edu.

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