Mick Jagger - vocals, guitar, harmonica; Keith Richards - rhythm guitar, vocals; Mick Taylor - lead and slide guitar, vocals; Bill Wyman - bass; Charlie Watts - drums; Billy Preston - organ; Ian Stewart - piano; Jim Horn - horns; Bobby Keys - sax
In May of 1969, the joyously decadent single, "Honky Tonk Woman," signaled the beginning of the second and arguably greatest era of the Rolling Stones. Featuring a 21-year-old Mick Taylor on lead guitar, this song and the subsequent tour to follow would certify The Stones as the most compelling, if not greatest rock and roll band in the world. Over the course of Taylor's live performing tenure with the band (1969-1973), Mick Jagger and Kieth Richards were at the pinnacle of their songwriting powers, writing many of the classics that have come to define the band. As much as Jagger and Richards were enamored by the blues, it was Mick Taylor's virtuosity that gave the band what they had been searching for since the beginning. Taylor's keen ear for harmonics and incredibly fluid style was free of clichés, giving the band an authenticity and power previously only hinted at.
Over the course of the next four years, The Stones would deliver some of their most outstanding albums, including Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street, all featuring significant contributions from Taylor. Although the next studio album, Goat's Head Soup, would find the band struggling to match the previous efforts, as a live band they were at their most penetrating, capable of delivering searing performances that could exhaust an audience with their sheer raw power and energy. Such was the case during September and October of 1973, when The Stones embarked on a European Tour that would go down in history as one of the most drug-fueled and decadent of all time. Midway through the tour, Keith Richards underwent a 3-day hemodialysis treatment that gradually filtered the heroin from his bloodstream in an effort to get off the drug. This event led to the rumor that Keith was having regular blood transfusions to survive his habit. Although untrue, this was widely accepted as fact and added to the already decadent impression of the band.
The Stones recorded much of this tour in hopes of releasing a live album and, although superb recordings and performances were captured, a tangled mess of legal complications thwarted an official release. Legally prevented from releasing any song previously released on Decca or published by ABKO, this made a live album virtually impossible at that time. In an alternate effort to get some of these outstanding performances heard, the band provided a composite recording to the then fledgling King Biscuit Flower Hour, which had begun transmitting live performances on their weekly syndicated radio show earlier that year. The bulk of the material was sourced from two October 17th performances in Brussels, with a few choice cuts sourced from London and possibly Rotterdam earlier in the tour.
Here in all it's glory is that legendary recording. For those who consider the Mick Taylor era to be the peak of The Stones as a relevant live band, this recording features some of the best live performances ever captured. Here the band allows the music to say all that needs to be said. No pyrotechnics, projected visuals or over-the-top theatrics were needed - just blistering hot performances by a band inspired to play.
The recording kicks off with the double whammy of "Brown Sugar" and "Gimme Shelter," two undeniably classic numbers that display the band in fine form. The tightness of the rhythm section and Jagger's powerful vocals fuel these songs, but what is immediately most impressive is the interplay between Richards propulsive riffing and Taylor's fluid leads. This continues on two tracks from Exile On Main Street: Richards' "Happy," (where he actually manages to remember most of the lyrics) and an infectious romp through "Tumbling Dice," where the band rocks out with joyous abandon. Two tracks from Goat's Head Soup follow and both far surpass the studio recordings. Keyboard virtuoso Billy Preston adds authentic New Orleans flavor to the swampy feel of "Dancin' With Mr. D" and "Angie" is far more engaging without all the string embellishments and a more heartfelt vocal from Jagger.
However, it is the 20+ minute continuous sequence that is "You Can't Always Get What You Want" followed by "Midnight Rambler" that is possibly the most amazing live Stones ever recorded. When the band really gets cooking, these two performances reach incredible heights and display an intensity that they would never quite duplicate again. The former features a phenomenal vocal from Jagger, with Taylor's biting lead guitar giving it a lot more emotional edge than anything up to this point. The guitar interplay between Richards and Taylor is brilliant. Taylor takes one of the most compelling solos of the night early on and Richards' Chuck Berry-styled riffing, along with Bobby Keys' sax, propels the band into a most impressive jam that is full of swagger. Toward the end of this jam, Taylor again cuts loose with a burning solo that is even more impressive for its economy and taste. This sets the stage for an absolutely hell-raising "Midnight Rambler" taken at a near frantic clip. Right from the start, one can sense that Taylor can't wait to sink his teeth into this and he is blazing from the get-go. Keith Richards is pure propulsion here, riffing up a storm. Although The Stones were rarely known for their improvisational abilities, the spontaneous energy here is nothing short of inspired. When they slow it back down for the Hoochie Coochie Man-like creep section, the crunch of the music is immense. Much like the Muddy Waters' song which fuels this particular section, the band achieves a blues authenticity that is even more passionate than the originals. High praise indeed! Keith Richards is deliciously raunchy here and Taylor is in his ideal environment. When Jagger begins his "midnight creep" vocal, the band pummels the audience after each line leading up to the penultimate line, "Everybody's got to go!" This of course launches the band back into a few blissful minutes of The Stones blazing away before it cleverly cross fades back into the frantic tempo in which it began. Taylor is out-of-this-world phenomenal here and it would prove difficult to find any other Stones performance from any stage of their career that approaches the sheer raw energy in such abundance here.
The finale of the recording is a take-no-prisoners four song sequence of "Honky Tonk Women," "Rip This Joint," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and finally "Street Fighting Man." Needless to say, this sequence is one fully engaged blowout. What is most impressive throughout is again the interplay between Richards and Taylor. Their high precision interlocking guitar styles perfectly compliment each other. Musically this is The Stones at their very best, rarely to be technically or emotionally surpassed after this tour. They may not have known it at the time, but it is even more confounding that Mick Taylor's last gig was just a few days later! Still, this remains a great final document of this era in the band's history. The band would never be quite as relevant or consistently compelling on stage after Taylor's departure. These performances are among the best ever captured of The Stones during the Taylor-era, at a time when all the musicians were burning with raw energy and truly inspired on stage.
-Written by Alan Bershaw