by Jeff Burger
The first two discs of the Rolling Stones’ new three-CD Honk collect highlights from nearly five decades of the group’s catalog, starting with 1971’s Sticky Fingers and continuing through 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, an album of blues covers. (The ABKCO label controls the group’s work from the 1960s, which is why you’ll have to turn to the original LPs for that indispensable material or, if your budget is tight, to the excellent Singles Collection: The London Years.)
As for Honk, it offers an excellent 36-song snapshot of the period it covers. Most of the obvious candidates are here, including nearly a dozen U.S. Top 10 singles (“Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Angie,” “Fool to Cry,” “Miss You,” “Beast of Burden,” “Emotional Rescue,” “Start Me Up” “Undercover (of the Night),” “Harlem Shuffle,” and “Mixed Emotions”). Aside from the few tracks from the aforementioned Blue and Lonesome and several that first surfaced on 2012’s GRRR! anthology, most of the rest are radio staples that should also need no introduction, such as “Wild Horses,” “Bitch,” “Happy,” “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It),” and “Waiting on a Friend.”
Of course, every fan is bound to find omissions to quibble about. (Yours truly would have thrown in a few more ballads, including “Moonlight Mile,” “Till the Next Goodbye,” “Time Waits for No One,” and “Memory Motel.”) But if you have to whittle the hundreds of songs in the post-ABKCO catalog down to three dozen, you could do worse than to wind up with the track list here.
The real question, however, is whether you ought to whittle at all. Many of the classic songs on Honk come from albums that are themselves classics, and it’s easy to argue that any serious rock collector needs records like Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers, and Some Girls in their entirety, not just their highlights.
Note, though, that the three albums mentioned above all appeared in the 1970s and that Honk’s program acknowledges that decade’s dominance by including nearly as many tracks from it as from the next four decades put together. Some fans may want this anthology as a wallet-friendly way to hit the highlights of LPs from those later years, some of which are less consistently satisfying than the earlier work.
And Honk’s nearly hour-long third disc includes a major additional carrot for those who already own much of the material from which CDs one and two were culled: 10 previously unreleased concert recordings, all from 2013 to 2018. These live tracks, which are invariably excellent, consist mostly of early gems like “Get Off My Cloud,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “She’s a Rainbow,” “Under My Thumb,” “Wild Horses” (with Florence Welch), “Dead Flowers” (with Brad Paisley), and “Bitch” (with Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl). While the dominance of decades-old material on all three discs suggests that the Stones’ songwriting heyday may have passed, these concert tracks demonstrate rather definitively that, more than half a century after they first gained prominence, these now-septuagenarian performers are as potent on stage as they’ve ever been.
Harpdog Brown, For Love & Money. Jazz and blues singer and harmonica player Harpdog Brown is based in British Columbia but sounds on this excellent album as if he has one foot in Chicago and the other in New Orleans. A terrific band provides backup on instruments ranging from clarinet and piano to saxophone and trombone. You’ll find potent covers of vintage songs here, including Memphis Slim’s “The Comeback” and Wynonie Harris’s “Buzzard Luck,” but the handful of new originals include some of the strongest material. Start with the horn- and clarinet-spiced “Reefer-Loving Woman,” which Brown released on video (see below) to celebrate Canada’s legalization of marijuana last October. If this isn’t party music, I don’t know what is.
Vegas Strip Kings, Jackpot. Here’s another band whose music sometimes belies their hometown: as their name suggests, the Vegas Strip Kings hail from Nevada, but the best of their rootsy accordion and sax-flavored music, which employs elements of rockabilly and zydeco, screams “Tex Mex.” When the group ventures into more traditional blues and rock, as they do on much of this album, they sound capable but relatively commonplace; but when they plant themselves around the Mexican border on songs like “Jesus on the Dash” and “Pawnbroker,” they flirt successfully with the same recipe that has powered acts like the Texas Tornados.
Johnny Shines, Blues Came Falling Down. Blues singer and guitarist Johnny Shines, who died in 1992, was at the top of his game when he performed the well-recorded, previously unreleased 1973 St. Louis concert preserved here. The album, which incorporates Shines’s spoken introductions to many of the songs, offers an excellent showcase for his country-blues acoustic guitar work and soulful vocals. Original material dominates the 20-track program, which also includes “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I’m a Steady Rolling Man,” and two other songs by Robert Johnson, Shines’s biggest influence and his touring companion during the 1930s.
Culture, The Nighthawk Recordings. Culture aren’t well known in the States—they rated just one track—“Two Sevens Clash,” from 1977—on Tougher Than Tough, the definitive reggae anthology, and they issued only one album that came out in the U.S. The original group split up in 1981, but founding member Joseph Hill carried on, recording the self-penned material on this seven-track EP in 1981 and 1983, with backing by Roots Radics and the Wailers, respectively. The performances, some of them previously unreleased, feature snappy rhythms, excellent brass, and and vocal work that’s on a par with that of such better known artists as Peter Tosh.
Chad Richard, Worthy Cause. Chad Richard (pronounced REE-shard) sure seems like star material on this instantly likable sophomore release. His gravelly, nuanced vocals are an emotive delight, especially counterpointed with the album’s omnipresent violin work. The all-originals program, a mix of ballads and uptempo numbers, covers subjects ranging from fatherhood to marriage and divorce; and all of them seem heartfelt and beautifully crafted. If you like such artists as Tom Russell, John Prine, and Greg Brown, put this one on your must-hear list.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.