Graded on a Curve: Confessin’ the Blues

Curated by The Rolling Stones with a cover painting by the band’s guitarist Ronnie Wood, Confessin’ the Blues is a 42-track dive into a fount of musical richness that inspired them as young British lads and has continued to impact their sound to varying degrees ever since. As an introduction to the blues, expert fans will surely note omissions, but when considered in relation to the band’s work and their advocacy of the form, it all goes down easy. Well, except for one thing, and we’ll get to that below. It’s out now on 2CD, 2LP, and a bookpack of five 10-inch records inspired by the shellac discs of the 78RPM era, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.

Bluntly, Confessin’ the Blues has been assembled not for the seasoned blues hound but instead with the intent to stimulate enthusiasm for the form, largely through multiple connections to The Rolling Stones’ substantial body of work. Many aficionados will no doubt gaze upon these selections with a critical eye and with no undue deference to the Stones as curators (a term that in this case is just a fancy way of saying they made a compilation). Fitting the description of aficionado, I can say that with a few omissions and points of overemphasis, plus the aforementioned bigger snag, they did a fine job.

The cornerstones are well-represented, with a due spotlight cast upon less-celebrated yet still crucial figures, but a slew of deep cuts and even a couple of obscurities make this more than a basic primer. That many of the selections have been recorded and performed by the Stones (a whole bunch on the 2016 album Blue and Lonesome) surely lent ease to the compiling, but as Confessin’ the Blues plays it becomes clear that a fair amount of thought went into the contents. Maybe not a big deal, but it’s worth noting, as they probably could’ve just generated a track-list by pressing random on Keith Richards’ iPod.

Naturally, particular emphasis is given to post-WWII Chicago. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are represented with four songs each, though it’s the former who reigns as the champ of this collection, opening it all with the song that gave the Stones’ their name (the still galvanizing “Rollin’ Stone” from 1950) and closing with “Mannish Boy” (appropriately, the original version from ’55).

Muddy is mostly defined by canonical stuff, but conversely, Wolf’s selections are primarily lesser-known killers (the celebrated “Little Red Rooster” is the exception) from his long and fruitful run at Chess Records (leaving his wild early Memphis material for further discovery). Again, the logic behind Wolf’s deep cuts is tied to the covers in the Stones’ catalog, but they also shine a light on the importance of songwriter and key formulator of Chess greatness Willie Dixon (this pertains to Muddy’s tracks as well).

The focus on Chess extends to the work of Chuck Berry (two cuts) and Bo Diddley (three), both guys for whom the blues was an integral component, but the song choices fit nicely into this scenario, obviously distinctive but not at all jarring to the flow, and with the addition of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q” (released on Chess subsidiary Checker in ’57) this is the closest the set comes to rock ‘n’ roll, meaning there’s not a subsequent blues-rock guitar god in sight. And I like that.

The generation of Windy City guitarists that helped shape the sound of those blues-rockers is well accounted for, however; there’s Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy (their harmonica contemporary Junior Wells is heard on “Mannish Boy”). I would’ve chosen an earlier-vintage Guy track than the title cut to his ’91 comeback album, but hey, it’s not like the selection sullies the program.

To divert from Chicago for a moment while keeping the focus squarely on subjects of blues-rock influence and worship, Robert Johnson is here with two songs, one of them “Love in Vain,” natch. Still, country blues is perhaps a bit underrepresented across these four sides as it remains directly linked to the Stones oeuvre. That means we get Mississippi Fred McDowell with “You Gotta Move” and Robert Wilkins with “Prodigal Son,” the latter in the sterling nine-minute version from the ’64 Newport Folk Festival (post-rediscovery, when he was the Reverend Robert Wilkins).

Confessin’ the Blues isn’t entirely guitar-focused, with harmonica king Little Walter getting four tracks (which simultaneously illuminate his talents as vocalist), his lesser-known Chicago mouth-harp cohort Billy Boy Arnold getting one, and even Sonny Boy Williamson blowing behind Elmore James on the indispensable “Dust My Broom.” Piano lends additional range via cuts by Big Maceo, Jay McShann and Walter Brown, and Amos Milburn.

But it’s guitarists who sing that’s really the gist of what’s here, and we get the electrified Delta extensions of James, Louisiana swampiness from Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim, and an assortment of city styles courtesy of Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Reed, Eddie Taylor, and Little Johnny Taylor. Titans John Lee Hooker and B.B. King are in the mix, but on the other side of the spectrum is the little-known Arkansas-based Boy Blue with his Alan Lomax-recorded Hooker-interpretation “Boogie Children.”

To sum up, Confessin’ the Blues is a solid plunge into the style, and one appropriately centered on African-Americans as its dominant shapers; Hawkins is the only white artist here, and a savvy choice (and once more, one covered by the Stones). But this thoughtful inclusion is at sharp odds with the lack of a single female artist. It might be too much to expect the dudes responsible for “Brown Sugar” to operate in accord with contemporary developments in gender diversity, but it would’ve been nice if they’d brought something by a woman of the blues to the program, because they existed, and still do.

Colin Larkin’s notes do mention the sustained popularity for female blues singers in the 1920s (which over time has kinda been valued more by jazzbos than blues nuts). The ensuing post-Great Depression rise of male-centric blues is the focus of this comp, but as a portion of the proceeds benefit a Foundation with a woman president and CEO (Dixon’s daughter Jacqueline), a track by Memphis Minnie, Koko Taylor, or Elizabeth Cotten (who along with Wilkins played at Newport in ’64) would’ve been a good way to communicate to younger blues-curious generations that the form wasn’t entirely a boy’s club.

In the grand scheme of current events this slight is minor, but in direct relation to this essentially superb set it continues to nag at me more than a little. And so, I’m docking it a bit in the grading. If you’re a newbie looking to investigate the style, this one’ll get you started quite nicely, but please keep in mind that this hunk of the Stones’ favorite blues sides doesn’t come close to encapsulating blues history. In fairness, it never really claims to.


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