Like virtually every major rock act in the mid-1970s, the Rolling Stones had become bloated and overblown. After the generation-defining singles of the ‘60s and the stellar string of albums running from “Beggars Banquet” to “Exile on Main Street,” they’d eked out three comparatively uninspired sets that, due to Keith Richards’ formidable heroin addiction and its multiple accompanying legal problems, found Mick Jagger seeking musical foils in guitarist Mick Taylor and then guest keyboardist Billy Preston. Consequently, those albums — “Goat’s Head Soup,” “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll” and “Black and Blue,” the latter of which many fans consider a nadir in the band’s career — at times sounded more like fusiony rock or ‘70s funk than the Stones. Their concerts had suffered as well, with their 1975-’76 sets meandering toward the three-hour mark, loaded with subpar songs from the above albums and even a dozen-minute, de facto intermission set from Preston (who, although a fine singer and one of the greatest keyboardists of the era, had taken an outsized role in the band).
But if one thing can snap a band out of a daze, it’s the prospect of its guitarist, co-songwriter and musical cornerstone — Richards — facing many years in a Canadian prison on drug charges, which is exactly the circumstances under which this unusual and remarkable concert was recorded in March of 1977. Seeking to spice up a forthcoming live album with some clubbier tracks, the Stones had booked two secret shows at Toronto’s legendary, 300-capacity El Mocambo nightclub — and just days before the concerts, Richards and longtime paramour Anita Pallenberg were busted at the border with heroin. While ultimately a deal was reached and Richards received only a suspended sentence, that outcome was far in the future during these dramatic shows. Musically, that make-or-break vibe was exacerbated by the recent rise of punk rock, which had placed bands like the Stones squarely in its sights, even though every punk rock band owed a huge debt to a group that more than any other had shaped the genre’s attitudes a dozen years earlier.
But as they’ve showed time and time again, having their backs to the wall brings the best out of the Rolling Stones. The group — with Ron Wood having replaced Taylor on guitar in 1975 — hadn’t played live in several months and the first night was shaky. But by the second show, they’d shaken off the cobwebs and were in classic form. Along with the stage show, the group’s setlist was downsized for the venue as well: Apart from several (i.e. too many) tracks from “Black and Blue,” the band went straight for the jugular, replacing most of their standard ballads or arena-sized epics like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Midnight Rambler” with club-era from their very earliest days, like “Around and Around,” “Crackin’ Up,” “Route 66” an even Big Maceo Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues,” many of which they’d rarely played in the previous dozen years if at all. (Four of those songs were previously released on the 1977 album “Love You Live.”) As Richards says in the liner notes, “The minute I got onstage, it felt just like another Sunday gig at the Crawdaddy. It immediately felt the same…it was one of those weird things in Toronto. Everybody’s going around talking doom and disaster, and we’re up on stage at the El Mocambo, and we never felt better. I mean, we sounded great.”
He’s not joking: He and Wood had locked into the two-guitars-sounding-like-one tag team Richards had enjoyed with Brian Jones in the band’s early days; the eternally underrated Bill Wyman’s paradoxically low-key and flashy bass playing zooms and swoops; and Charlie Watts drives the band with the uptight laid-backness that is the foundation of their greatness. Jagger is not only in fine voice, he’s hilarious, telling his bandmates to “watch out for their bottoms” and continually baiting the critics, asking if they’ve had enough to drink. All of this is captured in pristine sound quality — that’s Richards’ guitar in the right channel and Wood in the left — even the weak, historic-interest-only songs from night one that are tacked onto the end.
And although they’re tight musically, the world’s greatest rock and roll band is surprisingly unspontaneous on stage (they lock down a tour’s setlist after the first night or two and rarely deviate from it), and outlier shows like this one can find them comically confused: At one point here, Wood says to Jagger, “Don’t let the audience hear, but what [song] are we doing?”
“I don’t know!” Jagger replies. “Keith keeps putting on guitars and taking them off again.” But then they break into a killer version of “Little Red Rooster,” a deep blues that is one of the greatest songs of their early catalog and an unlikely No. 1 single in the U.K. in 1964: Richards and Wood duel on slide guitars while Ian Stewart, a founding member of the band and longtime road manager, plays some dazzling blues piano.
In the months that followed these shows, Richards kicked heroin, took a clear-eyed look at his band and apparently thought, “Wot’s all this?” Preston and percussionist Ollie Brown were out, and although the group actually followed its funk-leaning proclivities with the even-less timeless disco of “Miss You,” their next album, “Some Girls,” was filled with a supercharged version of classic Stones rock and roll — incorporating both the energy of punk and the swing of dance music into a template that would see them through the rest of their long, long career.
One could argue, in the parlance of the era, that the concert captured here was the first day of the rest of the Stones’ lives — and 45 years later, you’re in that sweaty club with them.