When the Rolling Stones were about to burst onto the scene, their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, struck upon the idea of marketing them as the anti-Beatles. Since the Beatles were nice, the Stones would be rude. Since the Beatles were clean, the Stones would be dirty. And from a musical standpoint, the Fab Four's grounding in pop was countered by Mick and Keef's staunch dedication to the blues. Because rock was geared towards ignorant young 'uns and lacked much of a critical community, the Stones' ersatz blues was successfully passed off as the real thing, and authentic blues has been an endangered species ever since. Take a survey of working blues guitarists today about their influences and you'll hear ten Stevie Ray Vaughns for every Muddy Waters and fifty Eric Claptons for every Hubert Sumlin. "It's a dying scene," one of those working guitarists told me about his experiences in Chicago. "The clubs are small and half-empty, and the only people who come are tourists anyway."
So complete was the assassination of the blues by rockers pretentiously taking up its mantle that when the Stones finally made a record with a respectable connection to the music they had been misappropriating from the start, fans and critics were baffled, even hostile. Exile on Main Street was muddy, fatigued, shambolic. What did that have to do with the blues they had led us to love? There was no "Brown Sugar," no "Satisfaction," and no "Sympathy for the Devil," just eighteen murky songs topped off by a cover of blurry freak show photos. Eventually, it was recognized for what it was -- a masterful tour of Americana with all its inherent difficulty and weirdness left in. It was one of the best records of all time, but more crucially for the Stones, it was the bravest move they ever made, one that looks even more so after thirty years of backing away from its daring with all the circumspection you might expect from rock stars as career-minded as Jagger and Richards.
This landmark album has now been saluted by Telarc, the record company behind self-explanatory outings like The Blues White Album and Blues on Blonde on Blonde. Exile on Blues St. gathers together an array of minor leaguers and lets them loose on a selection of cuts from the original. The results are as inessential as Michael Bolton's Timeless: The Classics and come with a boatload of irony to boot. Whereas the Stones made a career out of offering a whitened version of the blues while bragging of their purism, Telarc outdoes them in both gentrification and the boldness with which they announce their authenticity. It's supposed to be a blues version of the Stones, but it winds up as a Stones version of the blues that the Stones were finally able to produce.
To be fair to the artists who took a courageous stab on this exploitation project, it's much more difficult than it might seem to bluesify songs outside the style. After all, the defining feature of blues is its chord progression, and trying to cram, say, "Shine a Light" into this mold would make it unrecognizable. So what is the quintessential blues quality that makes this a stylistic interpretation and not simply a record of covers? Judging by the results, very little. Most of the tracks sound like they were done by Blueshammer from Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, a fact explainable by the use of the same house band for the rotating vocalists. Their interpretation of the blues makes the genre sound deader than it's ever been, nothing more than a circumscribed pool of clichéd phrasings supposedly able to shine through even the slick overproduction of Exile on Blues St. Though it may be tempting to cheer on the dwindling number of underdogs who try to preserve the blues in a world that cares for it less all the time, whatever Exile has captured is best left unchecked on its inevitable course down the drain.