Chicago Blues Greats Play Decades of Rolling Stones Songs on” Chicago Plays the Stones” (ALBUM REVIEW)

Some will naturally think that this is simply a reaction to 2016’s Rolling Stones’ Blue and Lonesome where the English band covered many of their favorite Chicago blues songs. Yet, this project, Chicago Plays the Stones, was envisioned before that album was released. It was inspired by the Chicago residency of the Rolling Stones’ 54-year-spanning, world-touring exhibit Exhibitionism.

Yes, blues tributes to the Stones have been done before, but this one is different because of the involvement, albeit humble and cameo, of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; and because rather than rendering the Stones songs as covers, these are done in Chicago blues style, conceptualized as the way they’d be done by Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, or others. The Stones recorded at Chess. Their love for the blues is genuine and the Chicago blues community respects them for it. If you were to attend a Buddy Guy show today, you’d hear him pay tribute to the Stones for getting his and other blues names out there. His comment would go something like this, “The Stones came back from England after they started selling such tremendous amounts of records and told the Americans who we were…Without those guys we’d still be, I guess, less unknown than what we are today. We owe them a lot of thanks because they didn’t come back here say this is news, we got it. They said, oh, no, you had it all the time and they woke America up to who we were.”

Three-time Grammy nominee producer Larry Skoller, leader of the backing Living History Band, and co-producer/arranger Vincent Bucher had been working on Rolling Stones songs dating from the ‘60s to ‘90s back in May of 2016. Skoller’s band includes Bucher onb harmonica, Muddy Waters’ sideman Bob Margolin {guitar) (sittin’ in), Johnny Iguana (keys), Felton Crews (bass), and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (drums). This Grammy-nominated band is the perfect loose, gritty, and informed complement to the real deal blues artists that grace the album. But, putting this together involved the challenge of injecting the traditional Chicago blues sound into songs that often had different chord structures and far different melodies.

From the opening track, though, it works amazingly well. Somehow the energy of these Stones songs remain intact with these different grooves.  It’s a masterful blues harp record due to Bucher, and leaders like Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, Omar Coleman, and others. John Primer (Muddy Waters sideman), one of the few enduring traditionalists, kicks it off with “Let It Bleed” and immediately it just feels powerful and right on target. The venerable Billy Boy Arnold (Bo Diddley’s sideman) follows with one of the earliest Stones songs, maybe the only one they didn’t write, “Play with Fire.”  The album centerpiece follows with Buddy Guy, as only he can do it so damn soulfully, covering “Heartbreaker” with Jagger singing along.

Ronnie Baker Brooks does a contemporary take on “Satisfaction” and harmonica ace Billy Branch gets down on “Sympathy for the Devil.” Primer reprises with “Angie” and emerging stars Leanne Faine (“Gimme Shleter”) and Mike Avery (‘Miss You”) take their turns admirably. Acclaimed soul/blues singer Jimmy Burns does “Beast of Burden” with Keith Richards contributing guitar licks.

The album amps up to even higher levels with guitar slinger/vocalist Carlos Johnson’s blistering take on “Out of Control” and young harp ace/singer Omar Coleman tearing up “Go Wild.”  Burns finishes the proceedings soulfully with “Dead Flowers.” Together this is a great mix of iconic Chicago blues greats and rising stars. The energy never sags. Somehow these songs just seem natural with these gifted musicians. After hearing Buddy Guy, for example, do “Heartbreaker,” you’ll most likely prefer his version to the original.  

<P>There’s a ton of information about the project and the individual artists in the liners.  Better yet, several of these musicians will be touring the album. They will appear at the Reading (PA) Blues Fest on November 17 and at New York’s City Winery 11-18. Please visit http://chicagoplaysthestones.com/shows/ for complete tour information.

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