It seems the glut of questionable tribute albums just won't end, with most little more than cynical exercises in niche marketing. Telarc does it better than most, though, and with their "Blues On . . . " series they've added a twist; rather than a diverse collection of artists and tunes, producer Randy Labbe provides a backing band with each guest tackling a tune from a landmark album of the classic rock era.
First came the Beatles' White Album, followed by Dylan's Blonde On Blonde; both had their moments, but often things came across as somewhat contrived, the participants occasionally forced to struggle to hard to find the blue core of the material. Much better is the latest offering, "Exile On Blues Street," a reinterpretation of the Rolling Stones' sprawling masterpiece.
There's no one alive likely to beat the Glimmer Twins at their best, and in truth it makes no sense to try; whatever their faults, Mick, Keith and the boys are icons, and their signature sound has become an integral part of pop culture. So the versions here that work best are, paradoxically, the ones that stray the farthest from the source. Which means that Lucky Peterson's nasty, slide-fuelled take on "Ventilator Blues" adds something to the tune by giving it a funky update, whereas Christine Ohlman's straight-ahead version of "All Down The Line" doesn't really add up to much. Jeff Lang's shimmering solo take on "Sweet Virginia" strips the tune of its swagger, revealing a surprisingly tender core. Joe Louis Walker ups the gospel ante on "Shine A Light" with characteristic fervour; Otis Taylor gives "Sweet Black Angel" his patented spooky, almost hypnotic treatment. And while Tommy Castro may not reinvent "Rip This Joint," he does at least inject it with enough of his own personality (high-spirited, exuberant, and irresistible) to make one forget, at least for a time, the original. Andrea Re and Colin James turn in a subtly re-worked "Tumbling Dice" that adds just a bit of a Memphis feel. Deborah Coleman's "Happy" plays things a little too safe, with the result unremarkable; Tab Benoit, on the other hand, stays close to Slim Harpo's original to good effect, Tab being one of the finest purveyors of swamp-blues around. Things come to a reasonably satisfying close with Jimmy Thackery's "Rocks Off," though Jimmy's croakier-than-usual vocals will be a matter of taste.
Apart from the Mr. Lang's solo turn, the whole project's anchored by the Double Trouble rhythm section (Bassist Tommy Shannon, with Christ Layton on drums) and guitarist Brian Stotz, so it's more or less a given that support throughout is impeccable.
We tend to take the Stones' sound for granted as definitive, and those here who don't try hard enough to put their own stamp on things tend to prove it. But the artists who do take risks - and they're in the majority here - show just how strong the songs themselves are, that they bear up well under re-examination, with the results often fascinating.
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