It shouldn't be a surprise, really, but still it's a bit startling to hear just how well the Rolling Stones can play the blues. Strip away the glitz, the oversized stages and the pyrotechnics, and you're left with two terrific guitarists, a frontman who can play an exuberant harp — and a drummer named Charlie Watts. No wonder Blue & Lonesome sounds so solid.
Their first studio album in more than a decade has the simplest of concepts: Put the guys in a studio for three days, give them a songbook heavy on Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf, and play it live, without overdubs. The album is noteworthy for what it is not: It's not a museum piece, not a tribute album, not an exercise in nostalgia, even if at times the sound harkens back to the blues covers that filled the Stones' first few albums.
In those early days, they always seemed to be trying to sound like somebody: Chuck Berry here, Muddy Waters there, and the songs, though undeniably cool, had a rushed, frenzied feel. The Stones were trying to prove their Delta authenticity, not an easy task for five English kids. Fifty-plus years later, they aren't trying to sound like anybody but themselves. The songs have grown, expanded, been given room to breathe, and the playing is remarkably self-assured and comfortable.
Mick Jagger's voice is deeper and raspier now, and he's not straining for effect. His blues harp playing, neglected for decades, is effective and convincing. The guitars take center stage, showing Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood at their expressive best, with Eric Clapton sitting in on two tracks.
The Stones' early passion for the blues helped introduce a young white audience to the established giants of the Chicago blues scene. Songs like "Little Rain" and "Hoo Doo Blues" show the Stones can continue the tradition on their own.