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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 10
Overall Rating = 15

Best Song: MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

It's a funny coincidence that two of my favourite bands happened to release not only their best non-archival live albums, but two of the best live albums bar none, in the same year. It's actually kind of logical for both of them: while the Who had their first huge commercial success with the Tommy album and its ensuing tours, the Rolling Stones were finally settling into the role as kings of rock as the Beatles were coming to an end, and both wanted to fight the rise in popularity of live bootlegs. It helped that audiences were eager to hear the Stones on stage, what with their not having toured since 1967, and with Mick Taylor now on guitar rather than Brian Jones, it was certainly an added bonus, being the only Stone who could potentially be considered a "virtuoso" of his instrument (as a blues guitarist à la Eric Clapton or Peter Green, both of which he replaced in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, no less). And so, by recording a couple of shows at the end of the US leg of the tour in late November, they had enough for one excellent single-disc live album, and in the CD era, they expanded it a bit: it's not the generous expansion of the later Live at Leeds releases for the Who, but the equivalent of a full show's length spread out on two discs (the original album and five bonus tracks) and a bonus disc featuring accompanying acts B.B. King and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue's sets.

I can certainly sympathize with those who, on first listen, find themselves underwhelmed by the album. "What's to it but a solid run-through of covers, album tracks, and singles, just with a live feel?", you might even ask. And yet, once you get used to the album, you'll realize that it's exactly that complaint that makes this album great. After all, what were the Stones but the masters of simple rock 'n' roll? Would you really expect them to change much live, other than amping up the energy and playing skill? Sometimes, they don't even need to increase the speed to make a lasting impression. Case and point for the latter would be the two Chuck Berry covers, former album track for the Stones, "Carol", and the even better Berry song (in its original form, that is) overall, "Little Queenie". Ignoring the speedy little rockers they once were, the Stones turn them into hypnotic, incessant mid-tempo boogies, with Keith's deliciously chugging chords, the romping, stomping rhythm section, Mick Jagger's audience engaging posturing, and most importantly, Mick Taylor's juicy, fluid insertion of all kinds of licks, Berry-esque or not. I marginally prefer "Carol" even though I like "Little Queenie" better as a song simply because Taylor's guitar playing on this one manages to be more stellar, with a slightly more stinging tone and lots of fun chord-like fills throughout, complementing Keith's guitar in an ideal way.

That's not to say there aren't any changes to the songs as presented here. The sole remaining cover, "Love in Vain", is a highlight because of its change, some absolutely breathtaking slide guitar soloing from Mick Taylor that's just as beautiful as the mandolin part of the studio version. It's almost unbelievable that it doesn't lose any of its charms by switching from a mostly acoustic to fully electric arrangement, and yet it preserves the original's charm and adds a new one. Maybe Mick's vocals aren't as stellar, but it doesn't have much of an effect on my opinion. "Live With Me", meanwhile, might lose out for lacking the dirty, raw, squealing sax solo of the studio version, but the band cleverly make up for any of the studio tricks originally used by doubling up on the grooving, fuzzy bassline with a complementary guitar riff not used in the studio. In a way, it might be even better with the guitarists struggling to chase after the bassline. It adds to the grimy feeling of the track, and while I would prefer if the fuzz-bass was given a chance to be on its own in the intro, it's otherwise as great a sax-free alternative to the studio version as I could ask for.

Even after a long time of getting acquainted with this record, I still couldn't get used to the decision to slow down "Stray Cat Blues", but only recently have I discovered an appeal to it in this tempo. Yeah, the terrific piano riff in the background is absent, but slowing down to a sluggish crawl makes the perverted angle of its lyrics all the more intense and creepy, and you can definitely tell by the way he sings that Mick prefers it this way too. I can just imagine him making all kinds of creepy faces singing about the girl's friend who's wilder than her. A final song like this one – one that's not quite a highlight because of a missing piece of the studio arrangement but that is still terrific otherwise – is the closing rendition of "Street Fighting Man". Even without the chaotic drone made up of sitar and organ in the distance, it loses none of its revolutionary call-to-arms feel, and with Keith distorting his electric guitar in a similar way to the chewed-up tape-recorded acoustic of the original and Mick Taylor supplying some droning, distorted lead guitar, they make up for the fuller studio arrangement just fine.

Oddly enough, the biggest highlights for me (other than "Love in Vain") are the four best-known songs, one of which is actually best known in this incarnation. Yes indeed, I'm referring to "Midnight Rambler", which was featured on at least one Rolling Stones' greatest hits album (Hot Rocks) in this here live version. In fact, as you may have noticed above, I have this labeled as the best song off the album. Formally, it's not especially different from the studio version. That one itself was a lengthy blues jam with Keith's fantastic chugging slowed-down blues/boogie riff and Mick's haunting harmonica and creepy, theatrical vocal antics, and this one is no different in that regard. Where it does differ, however, is where things are improved: the subtle, predatory feel of the original is discarded in favour of something more boisterous, as Richards' chords get louder, Jagger's harmonica gets wilder and sloppier, and Taylor joins in on the fun with some delightful, searing guitar leads throughout. As for the jamming that serves as the bulk of the performance, it's even better than the original, thanks once again to Taylor's guitar heroics, supplying that raw, blues-rock feel of Cream and the like that the band previously couldn't (or wouldn't) exploit to its fullest, but also to parts where Richards and Taylor riff around different ideas – more often than not borrowed – including the ideal riff for a song about a sexual predator/murderer, that of their namesake song "Rollin' Stone" from Muddy Waters. While I certainly would have welcomed a complete cover of that song, this inclusion is every bit as solid, and I wouldn't at all be surprised if, say, Humble Pie's decision to cover "Rollin' Stone" was inspired by this snippet. Certainly the way the slow, creeping riff and the powerful lead guitar blasts slowly speeding up into a crashing finale was an inspiration to many blues rock greats (and even not-so-greats) of the early '70s.

The second longest song of the live album, which itself was already lengthy in studio form, is a terrific rendition of "Sympathy for the Devil". How this manages to be great, or even recognizable, without the samba-esque piano, the bongos, or with less prominent "hoo-hoo" falsetto backup vocals is beyond me, but they reinvent it into a soulful, epic roots rocker with a hint of a Bo Diddley beat (which, come to think of it, was somewhat present in the original, but it's exploited further here). The former two characteristics owe to Mick Taylor, who plays the slick, rootsy introductory chords and constructs a meticulous solo, probably one of the most melodic and memorable guitar solos I've ever heard, that builds up nice and slow before reaching stinging, hypnotic licks better resembling Richards' solo on the original even as Taylor devises his own melodic ideas. The latter characteristic of Bo Diddley-ism, meanwhile, owes to Richards and the rhythm section, who provide this ideal backing. The more famous Mick is at the top of his game here as well; while vocal "barking" would become his downfall later on in the group's live career (and in the 1980s, their studio career), here he handles it brilliantly, taking on the role of Lucifer in the song with a lot less finesse than he originally did, but which adds more to the demonic side of the character rather than the sly trickster side, so I don't mind.

Finally, the original album contains two fine renditions of late '60s non-album hit singles, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Honky Tonk Women". The former makes for an excellent opener, as they just marginally speed up the rhythm, adding a bizarre sense of urgency to the way Richards hashes out the excellent riff, Charlie Watts steadily and rhythmically pummels his drum kit, and Jagger howls the seemingly nonsensical tale of Richards' gardener. Meanwhile, Mick Taylor adds plenty of fluid soloing throughout, which, thanks to an especially thick, distorted tone, has a quasi-heavy metal feel to it, if you take heavy metal to mean hard rock in overdrive (as I described the Who's Live at Leeds, for instance). And the latter single, which Taylor helped transform from a goofy bluegrass ditty into the dirty rocker it's best known as, might even be better than the way it was released in the summer of 1969: the fatter guitar tone (once again somewhat heavy metal-ish), the way it sets up the rhythm just as good as the iconic cowbell intro of the studio version, the grooving slide guitar work busily weaving its way around the track, the punchy Jagger/Richards harmonies replacing the female backing vocals with no problems, what more could you ask for in a live performance of a big hit where the band doesn't want to change the song's essence?

While I consider the original 10-track album to be worthy of a 15 just as handily as I considered Live at Leeds for it, I can understand why others might be sceptical. If that's the case, maybe the bonus tracks might be of assistance. The brief, 25-minute or so second disc starts with two groovy acoustic blues covers, the now familiar Beggars' Banquet track "Prodigal Son", which adds some fine acoustic slide over the chugging acoustic riffage that somewhat improves it (although Mick's parodic vocal intonation was better achieved in the studio) and one track that's especially bonus-like, a pre-Sticky Fingers rendition of "You Gotta Move", which is plenty of fun here as it would be on their 1971 LP. It might seem inessential, but the vocals following the slide guitar melody (or the slide guitar following the vocal melody?) is the kind of tribal and/or religious blues that's always hypnotic.

Then, there are renditions of a popular non-hit, an underrated b-side and one of their calling cards, which by all means should have been on the original live album. Actually, the former two practically form a medley: a surprisingly great rocked-up version of "Under My Thumb", with stinging guitar chords instead of marimbas, has this cool transitional riff between refrains and verses that segues nicely into the main riff of this live version of "I'm Free". I actually prefer "I'm Free" to "Under My Thumb" in this context, if only because Mick Taylor adds some beautiful soaring soloing that's almost ethereal, and certainly captures the idea of freedom in the song, as it resembles what art rockers or ambient musicians or others in that vein would use to create the image of a bird of prey flying majestically over the ocean or something. Anyways, this first bonus disc concludes with "Satisfaction". The band is still not exploiting the sexual undertones of the song and is sticking to the socially rebellious side of it, which is fine by me, as it inspires the band to play angrily; with Richards playing the riff in an even fuzzier tone, Taylor playing lead guitar with a tone that sounds like a wah-wah pedal stuck on its higher frequencies – and thus giving the impression that he's strangling his guitar – and Jagger viciously barking out every word, it's almost like punk rock at its earliest (and needless to say, best).

And while it may not mean much to the average Stones fan, I'm fairly happy with the final CD of the expanded edition of the album, which contains the two accompanying acts' sets. B.B. King is as good as he is on his own live albums from 1965 onward, and while the setlist is fairly standard, it has all the makings of a classic B.B. King show: blues with a jazzy, swinging kick (his staple opener "Everyday I Have the Blues"), some slow blues de luxe in a storytelling vain (concert favourite "How Blue Can You Get?") or something more traditional ("Why I Sing the Blues?") and his shedding his guitar hero title for some good old fashioned crooning (the quasi-suicidal love song "Please Accept My Love"). My favourite of the batch, however, has to be the funky "That's Wrong Little Mama": after an exercise in Hendrix-like soulful chord riffing, the horns step up and play this completely bonkers groove that's a little showtime jazzier than your average James Brown track, but every bit as exhilarating, and King's accompanying guitar parts and quasi-rapped vocals are compact and speedy, showing that a bit of different style can revitalize any old bluesman should he really want it.

The Ike & Tina Turner Revue is pretty fantastic to hear, too. Unlike with B.B. King, I can't really compare to other live albums, since I haven't heard any, but they put on quite a show. There's a band warm-up in the form of an instrumental cover of "Gimme Some Lovin'", followed by Ms. Turner's own warm up in a brief snippet of a fiery, up-tempo soul number called "Sweet Soul Music". Then there are the two highlights of her set, a cover of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" that does away with the original's sexual innocence and adds plenty of Tina Turner's brand of sexual intensity, something amplified by the little ringing guitar lick that serves as the song's main hook (although in this version it's a dual guitar/piano lick, with Ike emphasizing certain notes with his swirling electric piano tone), and a slightly sped-up version of the duo's classic "Proud Mary" cover. I still marginally prefer the studio version, but with the horns sloppier, the drums rolling louder, and Tina practically jumping out of her skin, it certainly makes up for it with spades of energy. The two second-best tracks form a similar dichotomy, and would probably be minor highlights on a live Turner record (the electric piano and bluesy guitar are especially a highlight on this performance of "Come Together", and the squealing sax solo and breakneck speed on "Land of a Thousand Dances" make of the track one explosive closer), and it's a good thing they cap off the experience, because I'm not too fond of the cover of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long". I find she overemphasizes the sexuality in this one, with her purring and cooing in the mid-section "jam" becoming quite annoying upon repeated listens.

Anyways, while I can't say this with 100% certainty, not having heard every live album in existence, I can still say with some degree of confidence that this is one of the best live albums released in the era; for those who need convincing that the Rolling Stones were not just a great band in general, but a great live band in particular, this one does a way better job than, say, The Rolling Stones Rock 'n' Roll Circus (as if there was any doubt about that). And while I generally don't listen to multi-artist live albums – for starters, I might not always be interested in all of the artists involved, and usually they come in the form of hyper-expensive boxsets, like anything related to the Monterey or Woodstock festivals in this format – but the expanded edition of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is most definitely one I can recommend. And who knows, maybe some Stones fans could learn a thing or two about the other two acts because of this album.

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