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Review: Confessin' The Blues

A superb 42-cut reissue of gritty blues music where we find greats like John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James and more, with plenty of tracks from the Chicago-based Chess label.

BMG (2 CDs)
Five Stars

In 2016, The Rolling Stones' stripped down Blue and Lonesome retrenched to the sort of vintage blues songs that had inspired their early discs. Maybe they were preparing their fans for this superb 42-cut reissue of such gritty music. Guitarist Ronnie Wood did the cover art. We find the greats like John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, with plenty of tracks from Chicago-based Chess, the leading label in introducing 1950s and '60s white kids to rock's roots in the blues (Chess men Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley being prime movers). As the thorough notes remark, "This stuff was primal, authentic, sexy and dirty, perfect for the racing hormones of spotty schoolkids."

The package begins appropriately with Muddy Waters' "Rolling Stone" and ends with his "Mannish Boy." Slide guitarist Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move" represents north Mississippi's hill country's distinctive sound. From 1941, the title track by Jay McShann and Walter Brown shows a sophisticated element of the blues. The small, light-weight, easily portable harmonica being integral to wandering bluesmen's keys to the highway, harpman Little Walter gets four numbers.

Vintage versions of all of Blue and Lonesome's numbers appear here. Of course, reaching back to 1937, there's Delta blues legend Robert Johnson's quiet "Love In Vain Blues," which The Stones restyled so gorgeously on Let It Bleed. Rev. Robert Wilkins' nine-minute biblical tale "The Prodigal Son" has verses The Stones pruned for Beggars Banquet. Among the package's lesser-known acts, Lightnin' Slim delivers electrifying call-and-response notes on "Hoodoo Blues."

The emphasis is on tracing the music's migration from the Mississippi delta to Chicago. Blues devotees seeking older, more obscure tracks (along with the East Coast's comparatively easy-going Piedmont blues) should check Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey and Rude Dudes, delightful two-CD compilations bygone Stones bassist Wyman assembled for Document Records. With so many of our best-known blues heroes, Confessin' The Blues is a joy. Yesteryear's blues has give a great deal to The Stones, and they've repeatedly reciprocated by helping to keep the music alive and vibrant so their fans can discover it.

—Bruce Sylvester