Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Live at The El Mocambo & Licked Live in NYC

This is part four of our summer live concert album series.Ed.

The Rolling Stones are arguably the greatest live musical act in rock ‘n’ roll history. While the group only released three live albums during its 1960s and 1970s heyday and one of them wasn’t even a truly live album, as the years have gone by, the group has more than made up for that oversight.

Along with releasing twelve official live albums since 1966, the group has also released 20 “official bootlegs” since 2011, available in a variety of media formats, along with various miscellaneous live releases from ABKCO and Eagle Rock/Mercury Studios. The latest release of live material, Live at The El Mocambo, does not fall under the category of official bootlegs and may be one of the best live releases in the group’s history.

This new set is available as either a 2-CD or 4-LP vinyl set. We will be reviewing the vinyl set. The vinyl is housed in a slip-case that contains two double albums, pressed on 180-gram vinyl, with each two-album set in a gatefold package. The eighth side of this four-LP set features an etching of the group’s iconic tongue logo.

In March of 1977, The Rolling Stones played two nights at the Toronto club El Macombo. From the tiny stage, in front of about 350 people and with support from the likes of Billy Preston, Ollie Brown, and Ian Stewart, and with Ron Wood by then comfortably ensconced in the group after replacing Mick Taylor in 1975, the group was at a peak of live playing.

Four tracks here originally appeared on the 1977 double album Love You Live. The material on that release was from the first night. Unfortunately, on the second night there were sound problems and even worse, it was supposedly the better night. However, this new release features the entire second night and three performances from the first.

It’s hard to tell what those sound problems were on the second night, as the sound quality here is top-notch and about as good as it gets for a live album thanks to a perfect new mix by Bob Clearmountain. The songs that appeared on Love You Live that are repeated here are all covers: “Mannish Boy” (Muddy Waters), “Crackin’ Up” (Bo Diddley), “Little Red Rooster” (Willie Dixon), and “Around and Around” (Chuck Berry). The rest of the material includes very little of songs they recorded or played live in the 1960s and instead reflects the funky, gritty, ‘70s rock that characterized the group’s music prior to the game-changing Some Girls album in 1978.

It’s not clear why it took so long for these live performances to come out and why they sound so good, given the reported problems with the original recordings, but all that matters is they’re finally available and fans of the Rolling Stones couldn’t be happier.

If the El Macombo reissue was not enough, fans of The Rolling Stones have another excellent live reissue to celebrate. Licked Live in NYC has just been reissued in various formats, including CD, DVD, Blu-ray, and a three-LP vinyl reissue. We will cover the vinyl reissue, which is a limited-edition 180-gram, white vinyl release in a tri-fold package.

Some of this material was previously released as part of the 2003 4-DVD release Four Flicks. These live performances were part of the 40th anniversary of the group, with this show filmed and recorded at Madison Square Garden, which was also broadcast as an HBO special. Whichever format you purchase this time around, you will get extra music not on the original DVD release, although, oddly, the 3-LP set doesn’t include as many performances as the other formats. Still, the vinyl set is the way to go, especially if you have the original DVD.

The sound has been remixed and remastered and the vinyl was pressed in Germany and boasts good audio. It isn’t quite as good as the El Macombo set, no doubt given that set was originally an analog recording and recorded at a small club, instead of a cavernous arena. Also, Darryl Jones bass does seem to be buried a little in the mix, whereas Bill Wyman’s bass on the El Macombo set is full, yet subtle.

Unlike the El Macombo release, the performances included here mostly reflect, the classic songs set list the group has settled into for some time now. The lineup includes Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood, along with Darryl Jones on bass (who by this point had been in the band ten years as Bill Wyman’s replacement), Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Bobby Keys on sax, Bernard Fowler on backing vocals, Lisa Fischer on backing vocals, Blondie Chaplin on backing vocals/ acoustic guitar/ percussion and joining Keys on horns, Tim Ries on sax (and also keyboards), Ken Smith on trumpet, and Michael Davis on trombone.

One of the highlights is hearing Sheryl Crow just as she was celebrating her tenth anniversary as a recording artist, singing “Honky Tonk Woman” with Mick Jagger. It’s a real show-stopper and few singers could so perfectly be matched with Jagger on a song like this. There are also some rarities here, with live performances of “Don’t Stop,” “Thru and Thru,” and most unexpected, “Monkey Man.”

Something special happens when the Stones play New York. Perhaps the group’s best live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, released in 1971, was partially recorded there. The 2008 Shine A Light, taken from the group’s performances filmed by Martin Scorsese from the Beacon Theatre in New York, is also one of the group’s best.

This tour obviously rejuvenated the band, as they wrote new songs, recorded them and released their first album of original compositions less than two years later. That album A Bigger Bang, was their first new studio album in eight years.

It’s hard to believe this concert was from 20 years ago and the group was celebrating its 40th anniversary. As of this writing, the group was in Europe, celebrating their 60th anniversary, although the tour has been temporarily halted due to Jagger’s testing positive for Covid. This is the group’s first tour without Charlie Watts. It will be interesting to see how much longer the Stones roll live, but in the meantime we have two superb live reissue releases to savor.

El Mocambo 1977
A

Licked Live in NYC
B

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