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Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones: Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981

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Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones: Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981

Eagle Vision

Was the Rolling Stones’ arrival at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago on November 22, 1981 an impromptu, unchoreographed exercise in pure fandom? Or was it a canny bit of promotion, a reminder that the Stones remained, at heart, an authentic blues act, most at home in a club full of black musicians? The latter may be the cynical view, but the band’s manager claims he approached the Checkerboard higher-ups a week in advance, proposing a surprise concert and proffering $500 as proof-of-earnest. Don’t believe Eagle Rock Entertainment, then, when they suggest that the Stones’ appearance on this night was in any way serendipitous. Jonathan Lethem once called Mick Jagger an “irritating capitalist,” and herein lies the difficulty in being a Stones fan: how to reconcile the hard-bitten groove of the band’s rhythm section with the stage-managing machinations of the frontman? There are two basic solutions: one, don’t fret—just listen, and two, make sure Muddy Waters is on stage.

Previously available only as a lo-fi bootleg, the audio on this LP/DVD package (released as a DVD/CD in July) is notably crisp, mixed and restored by longtime Stones soundman Bob Clearmountain. The video, meanwhile, isn’t only a testament to Waters’s barely diminished stage presence (he would pass away just two years later), but also to the power of the Stones in a small venue.

Here’s the scene: Waters is performing at the Checkerboard, trotting out traditional numbers and adding thin, brittle fills with a half-length pinky slide. Cue the Stones, who enter the club, bearing bottles and blondes, during “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Waters is noticeably upped by their arrival. “Let’s bring Mick Jagger up here,” he beams, and the frontman complies, exercising an overtly light, almost precious touch to his call and response with Waters, easing himself in and not seeking—for once—to impose. Then: “What about Keith?” Jagger nods his approval, and Richards climbs onto a table and then the stage, bestowing a hug on an impossibly large black woman in a pink dress who moments before had served him a bucket of whiskey. Handed a black Telecaster, Richards gets right down to business while Waters eventually remembers Ron Wood’s name and invites him up too. As Jagger reverts from rock star to participant fanboy, Waters, looking ecstatic, alights from his stool to strut and gesticulate with the stagecraft of a man half his age. By the time they get to “Mannish Boy,” Muddy sounds 20 years younger; by the third verse, he seems ready to tear off his vest.

Soon, we get hot-fingered solos from Buddy Guy (resplendent in full afro) and lively vocals from Junior Wells, who sings directly into Waters’s face. At this point, we’re in guitar-soup territory. The Checkerboard stage threatens to buckle under the weight of a half-dozen Fenders. Somehow, though, the music works, breathes, and isn’t merely an exercise in mutual admiration. Toward the end, the now nearly forgotten blues vet Lefty Dizz, serving in this period as the Checkerboard’s in-house guitar jester, relieves Guy of conducting duties and sings “One Eyed Woman,” a panegyric to an “ugly woman…with a mouth full of skunk.” Jagger cedes him the stage while Wood meets Dizz’s non sequiturs with tiny squeals on the slide.

What is serendipitous about this night, and what you won’t find in the liner notes, is that performing mere feet away from Waters seems to bring Jagger down to earth, to take him back some 15 years at least, before world-spanning arena tours required him to amplify his preening strut. Waters, stately in vest and tie and bearing a weather-beaten, rust-red telecaster, is similarly transported. The mutual contact high is palpable. One wonders what a properly orchestrated studio collaboration between the two would have produced.

In his autobiography, Richards reminisces about the Stones’ early club days: “The spaces were small, which suited us. It suited Mick best of all. Mick’s artistry was on display in these small venues, where there was barely space to swing a cat—perhaps more so than it ever was later…. Give Mick Jagger a stage the size of a table and he could work it better than anybody, except maybe James Brown.”

Just look at the band’s 1964 TAMI show for an example of what he means. By the mid ’70s, the Rolling Stones felt compelled to augment their loss of musical momentum with Spinal Tap-worthy props, including, memorably, a giant, inflatable penis. In 1981, at the start of a similarly bloated arena tour, the Checkerboard performance showed a version of the Stones that few would ever see again: intimate, underlit, not strutting so much as seeking to avoid collisions on a stage the size of a table.