Rolling Stones, ‘Live at the El Mocambo’: Album Review

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In 1977, between the unfortunate black and blue and career rejuvenation Certain girls, the Rolling Stones have managed to keep their intentions to play a pair of intimate shows at Toronto’s famous El Mocambo club secret, for a little while anyway. With fans lined up to see local heroes April Wine, via tickets won through a radio competition, the Cockroaches’ supporting act looked familiar enough once they took the stage.

The Stones played two shows on March 4 and 5 at the 400-seat club, filled with classic songs (“Honky Tonk Women,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), old favorites (“Route 66,” “Little Red Rooster “) and some new cuts (“Worried About You”, which would not appear until four years later tattoo yourself). Four songs from the concerts appeared on the concert album i love you live that September, buried among bloated tracks culled from the road-weary band’s 1975-76 tour.

These songs have always been live LP stars but haven’t been heard in their own context (at least legally) for over 45 years. Living at El Mocambo collects the entire March 5 performance plus three songs from the previous show, and it’s a revelation for anyone thinking back to 1978 Certain girls was the trigger for the Stones’ comeback. All they needed, it turned out, was to step out of the spotlight and return to their roots to reclaim their crown as the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.

Sure, Certain girls confirmed this as the band confronted their impending dinosaur status by defending themselves against punk and disco, adapting young genres to their strengths and needs. You can already hear them thinking about this approach in El Mocambo‘s 23 tracks, reworking old classics and breathing new life into them. Mick Jagger growls, the guitars of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood slash and the rhythm of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman pushes everything with force.

The set list is mostly familiar; many songs were staples of their world-conquering tours of the previous half-decade: “Tumbling Dice”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll”, and “Brown Sugar” were a part of Stones’ broadcasts since their introduction. What’s different here is the looseness of the band. At first they go through the motions for the most part, but once they settle into a smaller stage and an audience that’s integral to the performance, it’s easy to forget they were filling stadiums a few months earlier.

Thus, the middle section of the 107-minute album is the starting point for the show’s legend. Beginning with covers of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” and ending with a double punch of “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” and a breathless “Rip This Joint”, the Stones hadn’t sounded so vital on stage since the late ’60s. Check out the slamming “Around and Around” and how they rev up the already searing “Star Star.” And “Little Red Rooster”, a i love you live culmination, takes a similar central position here.

But even overplayed and relatively weaker tracks come to life in the new context. A minor song like “Hand of Fate” by black and blue crackles with energy here, as Jagger and Richards share a call and response near the end. The oft-played “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” doesn’t seem like a must, as he’s been on stage for years before and since that Toronto date – particularly in the go-for-broke finale. Whether intended or not, the performances heard on Living at El Mocambo gave the Rolling Stones the shock they needed to move forward during a time of doubt. It was another turning point, finally accessible to all.

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