Sharps and Flats: Paint It, Blue: Songs of the Rolling Stones

David Pulizzi reviews the Rolling Stone tribute album.

Published December 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

In the beginning, Mick and Keith had a shared vision of themselves as great, weary bluesmen, sitting on the porch of a weather-beaten bungalow down along the Delta. With guitars and harmonicas ever close at hand, they would sip corn whiskey straight from the jug and gaze off yonder at the rolling Mississippi. Day in, day out, that would be their earthly existence -- at least until the good Lord above saw fit to call them home. That was their basic plan, back when the Glimmer Twins were both just a couple of anonymous middle-class Limeys with nothing better to do on a cold, gray evening but romanticize themselves right into a typical Southern sunset in Robert Johnson's America.

When the Rolling Stones came to the States for the first time in 1964, they headed directly to the Chicago recording studios of the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, founders of the legendary blues label Chess Records. There, in sloppy and largely forgotten 12-bar increments, the Stones paid homage to their American blues heroes. As Francis Davis noted in "The History of the Blues," the Stones' early Chess covers basically "amounted to love letters to that label's performers."

But mere love letters and the innocent dreams of youth would never wholly contain the Stones. Soon, Mick and Keith would begin toying with the blues, like Elvis Presley had a decade earlier, stretching and twisting it in feverish, creative bursts into something the white kids might proudly and defiantly call their own. In the process, they dragged the blues into the super-heated social and political climate of mid- and late-1960s America, much as their wildly inventive progenitors at Chess had packed and hauled a completely retooled version of the old acoustic Delta blues up from the Deep South and into the industrialized, electrified urban atmosphere of postwar Chicago.

The liner notes for the new House of Blues release "Paint It, Blue: Songs of the Rolling Stones," say that this compilation "is a celebration of the Rolling Stones' early passion." That seems a fair enough general assessment of this nicely packaged, exceedingly well-produced CD that includes 13 Stones nuggets, several of them well-known classics, performed by 12 fine and steady blues and soul acts, several of them classics as well.

There is very little on "Paint It, Blue" that doesn't merit a close and appreciative listening. It is a potent, often inspired mix of artists and songs. Taj Mahal, singing like an old scaly lizard and playing a spare, greasily plucked rhythm on dobro, delivers an even sleazier take of "Honky Tonk Woman" than the Stones did on their original version in 1969; Junior Wells reduces the anthemic "Satisfaction" to a sly, harp-driven tale of personal lamentation in what may well be his last recording; the recently deceased Johnny Copeland, fueled by a meaty power-chord progression and a muscular, chugging rhythm section, burns his way through an absolutely jubilant "Tumblin' Dice"; and Alvin "Youngblood" Hart's plaintive recitation of "Moonlight Mile" is so lonesome and starkly beautiful it ought to be outlawed.

Mick and Keith must be smitten. After all this time and all the silly bullshit they've put themselves through, it must be a pleasure to sit back on the tour jet with "Paint It, Blue" on the headphones, listening in wonder as their peers and old heroes chase their coattails for a change. How amusing that must seem at 30,000 feet. Almost as amusing as that ridiculous notion they once had of being great, weary bluesmen with a weather-beaten shack down along the Delta. That was a good one, eh, Mick?

By David Pulizzi

David Pulizzi is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh.

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