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CD REVIEW -- Chicago Plays The Stones
John Primer Soul of a Blues Man CD banner

Various Artists

Chicago Plays The Stones

Raisin' Music Records

12 tracks

chicago plays the stones cd cover

by Greg Easterling

It's a concept that's time has finally come. Gather together a group of top Chicago blues musicians to record a tribute to the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band whose primary musical influence is the sound they heard blowing out of the Windy City decades ago. It's the Rolling Stones whose relationship to Chicago has rarely been less than respectful, whether visiting the home of the blues or infusing the spirit of the music created here into their timeless classic rock. After all, the band got its name from a Muddy Waters song.


And yes, there have been plenty of bands from all genres of music paying tribute to the Stones music by covering and reinterpreting their songs -- who can forget DEVO’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”? Most notably, in 1997 a variety of blues artists -- including Gatemouth Brown, Luther Allison, Junior Wells, Taj Mahal, Otis Clay and Bobby Womack -- covered the Stones with the album Paint It Blue: Songs of The Rolling Stones (This Ain’t No Tribute).


However, Chicago Plays The Stones, takes the concept right to the source of the music that launched the band’s career. Producer Larry Skoller gathered today’s top Chicago blues artists who were mentored first hand and/or influenced by the same legends who inspired the Stones: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Magic Sam and more. As Skoller observed during the recording sessions: “I was moved by how inspired the musicians were by these great songs and above all their desire to get inside the songs and make them their own. This should come as no surprise since the essence of these songs is already part of their own DNA.” Also, Chicago Plays The Stones stands apart from previous tributes because two Rolling Stones actually play on it – Mick on “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” with Buddy Guy and Keith on “Beast of Burden” with Jimmy Burns.


And while the album Chicago Plays the Stones was originally released in 2018, this review couldn't be any timelier. After postponing their 2019 No Filter tour because Mick Jagger's doctor ordered emergency heart surgery earlier this year, the Stones chose to  jump start the tour at Chicago's Soldier Field, the site of many a past Rolling Stones concert. The No Filter extravaganza was originally supposed to end in Chicago but instead the band chose to begin it here after Jagger got the green light from his physician. In a public statement, Jagger said the decision to start the tour in Chicago with the two originally scheduled shows on June 21st and 25th was no accident when they could have begun it in a glitzier coastal American city such as Miami, New York or Los Angeles. It's a tribute to the town with the sound that attracted Jagger and Keith Richards, leading to their boyhood friendship that would become a band also featuring fellow blues enthusiast Brian Jones, and the original rhythm section of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. Later addition Mick Taylor and his eventual replacement Ronnie Wood also shared the vision cultivated in bands such as John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and The Faces. When bassist Wyman left the band, he was replaced by native Chicagoan Darryl Jones.


Chicago Plays The Stones is not a rehash of Rolling Stones songs. In most cases, it's a Chicago blues influenced reinvention of mostly familiar Stones songs that defy reinterpretation. The original Stones versions of classics such as “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction” and “Beast Of Burden” are so burned into our collective consciousness that it is hard to conceive of them being played any other way. But producer Larry Skoller and his “wrecking crew” of top local blues session musicians have proven equal to the task. The album was recorded in Sweet Home Chicago at Joy Ride Studio with very few overdubs to capture the special live vibe that could only be obtained in the Home of The Blues with its local access to the best blues musicians in the world.


Chicago Plays the Stones gets off to a gutsy start with a new rendition of the title track, of one of the Rolling Stones most iconic recordings, Let It Bleed from 1969. Onetime Muddy Waters and Magic Slim guitarist John Primer answers the opening bell as the first voice heard on the album. He sings well over an uptempo shuffle arrangement that is driven by Johnny Iguana's keyboard and Vincent Bucher's harp with Bucher soloing. Primer and the band take this song out of the basement den, transforming a junkie's lament into an uptempo affirmation of support for a friend or lover.


The next song was originally a mild pop ballad with surprisingly biting lyrics that Jagger and Richard credited to their songwriting pseudonym Nanker Phelge as they sometimes did with songs that didn't seem to fit the classic Stones mold. “Play With Fire” is an early Stones single included on their first “best of” collection, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass). Ace Chicago blues harpist Billy Boy Arnold gets the call for lead vocals here as this softer ballad with strings originally is transformed into a Chicago blues shuffle with major instrumental assists from former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin soloing and Bucher on harp. While Arnold is not featured on harp here, his performances at the 2019 Chicago Blues Festival were among the highlights of the three day affair, both with his band on the Budweiser Crossroads Stage and his guest shot with Charlie Musselwhite on the Pritzker Main Stage.


Then it's time for the album's first superstar appearance with Mick Jagger joining Buddy Guy for “Do Do Do Do Do Heartbreaker” from the Stones' Goats Head Soup album. This slower arrangement of the Stones' classic really lives up to expectations with Buddy excelling on lead vocals while delivering a stinging but still melodic guitar solo. Mick joins in vocally on the chorus with alternating “heartbreakers” that don't ape his original lead vocal, finding something new to offer here. He also plays harp on this cut, tapping into his inner bluesman, which is all he really wanted to be in the beginning before rock stardom beckoned.


Many would avoid trying to cover the next track on Chicago Plays The Stones but not Ronnie Baker Brooks who was given “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” to sing. It's a bluesy, rapid romp through the Stones' early signature song that still remains their best known hit. Otis Redding also covered it and sang it live at the Monterey Pop Festival but Brooks and the band go their own way here, imitating neither the Stones nor Redding. Ronnie's guitar solo is stellar and he plays with a lyric line here too, changing “he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me” to “the same kind of reefer as me”!  As much as we miss father Lonnie Brooks, Ronnie and his brother Wayne Baker Brooks are helping to fill the void left by the passing of their blues star dad several years ago.


In some cases, the producers of Chicago Plays the Stones dropped a distinctive aspect of the Stones original to reinvent it. That's what happens with “Sympathy For The Devil” in the hands of local blues hero Billy Branch and the band. The extended percussion intro is eliminated as the Stones did themselves live for Get Your Ya Yas Out. Instead Branch gets right to it, diving into the once controversial vocal in which Jagger impersonated the devil. Never a demonic endorsement, as some conservative critics claimed at the time, this classic song is actually a laundry list of wicked historic events for which Satan claims responsibility including the Nazis' destructive blitzkrieg in World War II and the shocking Kennedy assassinations. When Billy sings now, you can actually understand the lyrics more than you can on Jagger's Stones original. Billy plays harp here, too, and supplies a great solo over a percussive groove created by all star bassist Felton Crews and rising young blues star, drummer Kenny Smith. Bob Margolin's slide licks and Johnny Iguana's keyboards also push the music forward.


“Angie” is also re-imagined here with a soulful Chicago blues approach as former Muddy Waters sideman John Primer takes his second vocal turn, only one of two local bluesman so honored. (Primer incidentally played with The Stones when they famously descended upon The Checkerboard Lounge in 1981 to sit in with their idol Muddy Waters). Producer Skoller dispenses with the piano and strings arrangement of the Goat's Head Soup original in favor of more guitar from Bob Margolin and a standard blues ballad feel. The distinctive haunting intro of “Gimme Shelter” is also abandoned and although that might seem unwise, it only serves to distinguish the tracks on Chicago Plays The Stones. The lesser known Leanne Faine taps into her gospel roots as she is the featured singer here, rather than dueting with another voice as Mick and Merry Clayton did on “Shelter.”


Next, it's Stone spotlight time again as Keith Richards takes his star turn with Jimmy Burns on “Beast of Burden” from the Stones' best seller Some Girls. The mood changes from the slower, more seductive Keith guitar groove of the original to a more uptempo Chi-town blues shuffle that brings out another side of the song. Jimmy's more uptown affirmative approach contrasts with Mick's more pleading vocal on the original. Keith does not sing here, coming through with an effective slide solo in the second half of the song.


If ever a song cried out to be copied note for note, it would be “Miss You” with harp virtuoso Sugar Blue setting the pace on the Some Girls original, but the producers of Chicago Plays The Stones refuse to play it safe! Drummer Kenny Smith devises a modified Bo Diddley beat mixed higher for maximum impact. And instead of imitating Sugar Blue's harp parts, Vincent Bucher does his own bobbing and weaving here with effective fills and a great solo. He's worked with blues legends Louisiana Red, Sonny Rhodes and Chicago's own Jimmy Johnson. Mike Avery, who grew up on the West Side with his legendary cousin Magic Sam, adds his own magic touch to the lead vocals here.


The next two songs are lesser known, relatively later Stones songs, “I Go Wild” from Voodoo Lounge and “Out of Control” from Bridges to Babylon. Rising Chicago blues star Omar Coleman rules over a trad Mannish Boy/Hoochie Coochie Man pattern with his powerful vocals and harmonica on “Wild.” Hometown blues mainstay Carlos Johnson sells it with his tortured vocals on “Control” with Bucher channeling Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Butterfield in support.


Jimmy Burns returns for the album closer, “Dead Flowers” from Sticky Fingers. Originally a honky tonk rocker with Mick affecting a down home drawl, it's reinvented here as a New Orleans leaning workout with a rolling Professor Longhair piano figure from Johnny Iguana dueling with Margolin on stingin’ slide guitar. It's a creative touch that ends Chicago Plays The Stones on a high note.


Much credit is due the musicians who provide both backup and embellishment for Chicago Plays The Stones. Collectively they are billed as the Living History Band with “Steady Rollin'” Bob Margolin on guitar, Johnny Iguana on piano, Vincent Bucher on harmonica, Felton Crews on bass and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums. The album is produced by Larry Skoller with help from Bucher. Insightful liner notes are contributed by award winning writer Bill Dahl, printed on the back of a huge, cool looking fold up poster that somehow fits into a slightly bigger than regulation soft CD package.


Chicago Plays The Stones hits the road Thursday August 1st for a live performance at the 2019 WDCB Summer Concert Series at the Lakeside Pavilion at the College of Du Page, Glen Ellyn. The outdoor performance, which starts at 7:30 is free and will feature album participants Ronnie Baker Brooks, Billy Branch, John Primer, Jimmy Burns and Omar Coleman.

 For info or to buy the album:

Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.

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