It looks like the Stones logo, but on closer inspection, the face around the protruding tongue is a bit more weathered and hairy than the Stones original. Maybe it’s truth in advertising at last – the old boys acknowledging their age with a tongue-out-of-cheek upgrade more based in reality. But as soon as you put the record on, it’s like stepping into a hall of mirrors, the music of the Stones influenced by venerable Chicago bluesmen reflected back at them with adaptations of their work by first and second generation Chicago bluesmen.
Buddy Guy and Billy Boy Arnold are the eldest statesmen here, with Billy Branch and Jimmy Burns not far behind. Bob Margolin, Muddy’s long time guitarist, and drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, son of Willie Big Eyes, who played in Muddy’s band for many years, are the better known of the younger generation. Mick and Keef stop by briefly as well.
But this release isn’t about star power, its about respect, a payback of sorts to the guys who introduced an entire generation to a part of their musical culture most never knew existed till the Stones exported it, handing it back to them strained through a British filter. The Stones paid official homage to their chief sources of inspiration with 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, covers of classic Chicago blues tunes. This one hands it back in a way that honors their contribution without slavishly copying their interpretations of the original form. And that’s what makes this project stand out. There are plenty of Stones tribute bands thrashing about, but these guys don’t go there. The titles are the same, and the melodies are somewhat recognizable, but that’s where the similarities end. These artists were given free rein to interpret the music with a cast that sounds like they’ve been playing together all their lives.
The house band for the occasion, dubbed the Living History Band, is Margolin on guitar, delightfully idiosyncratic pianist Johnny Iguana, who was Junior Wells’ piano player for 3 years well as a member of the Grammy-nominated Chicago Blues: A Living History Band. But Iguana’s keyboard skills are more interestingly displayed in his current band the Claudettes, with Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” rubbing elbows with French Ye Ye on one of their records. Vincent Bucher is on harp, Felton Crews on bass, and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums.
This ensemble is not about standouts, but blending for the good of the whole, and it works beautifully. Everybody is allowed a chance to bust loose on occasion throughout, but this is nobody’s solo project.
John Primer is the guest vocalist on “Let It Bleed,” and it’s an impressive kickoff. Bucher’s harp comes in screamin’ on the intro, then Primer jumps in with the vocal punch of Big Joe Turner and the smoothness of Robert Cray, the tune loping along till Bucher’s harp prods it with prickly barbs. Margolin drops in tasty, understated guitar, then Iguana cuts loose with a brief ivory cascade like a bucket of cold water in the face.
Ronnie Baker Brooks had the daunting task of covering Keith’s signature song,“Satisfaction,” but he proves up for the challenge, reworking it into a lashing blues that marches along menacingly. Brooks bends the lyrics in a stonier direction, the man on the teevee selling cigarettes in Keith’s version telling Brooks he can’t be a man ’cause “he doesn’t smoke the same reefer as me.”
Keith sits in on guitar for “Beast Of Burden,” with Eddie “Guitar” Burns’ little brother Jimmy on vocals. It’s virtually unrecognizable, transmogrified into a lanky, rockin’ blues with an acid flashback, back porch, deep-dish Delta guitar solo.
Buddy Guy and Jagger team up for “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” from 73’s Goat’s Head Soup. Guy takes this one into uncharted territory, the wah-wah saturated original replaced with a low-down creeper, Guy’s guitar lashing out at the gritty reality of the lyrics, the police putting a bullet through the heart of a young boy in Central Park in a case of mistaken identity, a ten-year old girl on street corner sticking needles in her arm. Jagger contributes harp and co lead with call and response vocals, but this one is all Guy, one of his best efforts on vocals and guitar in decades.
“Dead Flowers” is the most WTF moment on the collection, the Stones country honk classic made over into a samba, a rocking second line strut that makes you want to fuel up on joy juice and run naked through the streets, or at least around the living room. Margolin is outstanding on this one, sliding around like a blue demon, Iguana rockin’ his ass off with a barrelhouse piano solo like Fess and James Booker in a duel to the death.
It’s like hearing the Stones for the first time, that bad-ass, nasty stuff you didn’t know you needed till it hit you in the face. It’s even better the second time around, unfiltered, dipped right out of the trough where the big boys whomped up the original batch. You’ll want to keep this one within easy reach to grab for a quick pick-me-up on a daily basis.