The Rolling Stones’ Live At The El Mocambo recordings carry plenty of cachet on their own terms as well as in the context of the iconic British band’s history. On the latter front, the previously-unreleased 1977 recordings in Toronto mark the first full depiction of guitarist/vocalist Ronnie Wood’s contributions after he joined the group in 1975: he was only on five tracks of the 1976 studio album Black and Blue. Four culls from the two shows in Canada did surface as part of the next year’s Love You Live double-LP concert set and while this current release isn’t comprised of both appearances in their entirety–just the whole of the second night and three selections from the first (which actually sound redundant on the second CD)–it nevertheless documents the first in a series of such performances incomparably intimate venues the Stones subsequently offered over the years to come (see Stripped and, from a decade later, Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre 2015).
No doubt the group rehearsed rigorously in advance of these concerts, but still, the work was worth it. There’s no denying the fire in the playing early on during “Honky Tonk Women” and “Hand of Fate” and while the inclusion of such material as that latter-day tune (from the aforementioned studio album) reaffirms the group wasn’t taking the occasion lightly, other more vintage insertions also hearken to their early days, does this very up close and personal setting. “Route 66” and “Mannish Boy” are just two of the blues-rooted tunes on which the Stones cut their teeth, but that only renders more impressive the relish and attendant polish with which they imbue them here.
In contrast though, while the sentiment within “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is right in line with some of Mick Jagger’s coy between-song repartee, this rendition sounds rushed pure, and simple. The legendary lead vocalist can come off a bit unctuous these days when addressing crowds at large-scale outdoor venues, but as he jokes with the audience and his bandmates in this three-hundred-seat club, he more often than not sounds like his archetypal insouciant self.
On a more practical front, the frontman’s consistently vigorous, incisive singing on the closing of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” for instance, is no doubt charged by the novelty of the event. As is also the case for his Glimmer Twin Keith Richards and his fretboard partner Wood(y): the two help crystallize the band chemistry by trading guitar figures on “All Down the Line” as if they’ve been playing together for many years, not just mere months. Of course, that very longevity is exactly the foundation from which bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts derive their own supple impact as a rhythm section. Percussionist Ollie Brown is virtually inaudible through most of this new mix of Bob Clearmountain’s, but his cowbell (!) comes through loud and clear on “Luxury,” as does Billy Preston’s piano, the perpetual presence of which is emblematic of vintage Rolling Stones arrangements that included the late keyboardists Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins.
Live At The El Mocambo also continues another grand (sic) Rolling Stones tradition regarding graphic design for their physical releases. The pink outline of the lips and tongue logo on a black background (on the front cover and the two compact discs) would seem to have taken no longer to draw than to imagine. This long-awaited title deserves artwork that at least approaches the scintillating likes of what it encloses, the sounds of which render meaningful the otherwise often-cliched phrase ‘the greatest rock and roll band in the world.’