On November 22, 1981, just prior to a three-night stand at the Rosemont Horizon arena in Rosemont, Illinois, The Rolling Stones dropped in on a Muddy Waters gig at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge. Waters, who would pass away less than two years later, already had the audience’s rapt audience before the Stones even entered the club. With supreme authority, the Chicago blues legend led his band through several numbers before inviting Mick Jagger up to the stage to join him on “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
Keith Richards was next to join Waters and company on stage, followed by Ron Wood and Ian Stewart (longtime Stones keyboardist and road manager). If that weren’t enough of a party, three more blues giants—Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Lefty Dizz—all joined in before the night was over. Luckily for music fans, a camera crew was on hand to capture it all. Eagle Rock Entertainment has released the one-of-a-kind concert as a DVD/CD combo, Checkerboard Lounge - Live Chicago 1981. The DVD runs 106 minutes, including 16 tracks, while the CD was judiciously edited down to 11 tunes. Bob Clearmountain’s 2012 audio mix is outrageously good, assuring a pleasurable listening experience (the DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1).
As for the performance itself, it starts out tight, with Waters in full command of his band, and grows progressively looser. It’s fun seeing Jagger almost apprehensively sharing vocals with the elder blues statesman at first, eventually unleashing some of his signature moves. Richards and Wood have some terrific moments as well, jamming with Waters’ band and occasionally soloing. It’s certainly worth noting two key omissions that make the “Rolling Stones” co-billing a misnomer: drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman, both MIA from this performance. Jagger takes a seat after a few numbers with Waters, leaving Richards and Wood to continue riffing behind vocal spotlights by Guy, Wells, and an unhinged Lefty Dizz. Jagger returns later on, but by that point Dizz has managed to upstage him in terms of pure showmanship.
Following Eagle Rock’s outstanding presentation of Ladies & Gentleman: The Rolling Stones and Some Girls - Live in Texas ’78, Checkerboard Lounge - Live Chicago 1981 is yet another essential release from the Stones’ vault. Unlike the former two releases (both sourced from film elements), Checkerboard Lounge was shot on standard definition videotape, hence the DVD-only format. Framed at 1.33:1, the image quality is certainly acceptable, but obviously limited somewhat by the video technology of ’81. Again, it’s Clearmountain’s crystal clear mix that shines.
Bonus footage includes a performance of “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” led by Waters’ guitarist John Primer, and the Stones doing “Black Limousine” at the Hampton Coliseum (Hampton, Virginia) stop on their ’81 tour. The video quality of the Stones clip is pretty rough and it’s unclear why this particular number was chosen for this release (except maybe to add a bit of full-fledged Stones content, since the full band doesn’t play at the Checkerboard).
For the budget-conscious, Checkerboard Lounge - Live Chicago 1981 is available as a DVD-only release. But for the few extra bucks, I heartily recommend getting the DVD/CD combo because the concert makes for a great purely listening experience as well. The DVD/CD is accompanied by a booklet containing an essay by Robert Gordon, author of Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. Overall, this is an outstanding release that will appeal not only to Rolling Stones diehards, but also fans of the blues in general.