Live At The El Mocambo

Live At The El Mocambo

Toronto has long played a sizable role in the myth-making of The Rolling Stones. It’s been a home away from home for the group for decades, a place where they’ve set up shop to prep before hitting the road since at least as far back as 1989’s Steel Wheels tour. And during those months-long rehearsal stays, they’ve regularly held secret shows around town at small venues, such as the Horseshoe Tavern, RPM, and The Phoenix Concert Theatre. But the Stones’ Toronto club stint that started it all was a pair of shows at Spadina Avenue’s El Mocambo Tavern that took place March 4-5, 1977. During one of their T.O. sojourns, their manager had the idea to put on a couple of tiny gigs to record some tracks for a forthcoming live compilation (which became 1977’s Love You Live) in front of the Stones’ devoted—but unsuspecting—fans. They held a contest with the help of a local radio station: What would you do to see the Stones play live? The prize? Well...the prize, officially, was the chance to see Montreal rockers April Wine (a going concern in Canada at the time), with an opening band called The Cockroaches. The winners were ferried by bus to the venue, at which point they would learn that The Cockroaches were, in fact, the Stones—and April Wine would dutifully play support act. Those shows have gone down in Stones lore as some of the band’s most legendary, both for their on-form musicianship (Billy Preston also plays keys here) and the controversy that surrounded them. Estranged from her Prime Minister husband, Pierre, First Lady Margaret Trudeau showed up with Mick, partied with the band, and sparked a lifetime of rumors to follow. Guitarist Keith Richards was out on bail for the shows after being arrested the week prior for heroin and cocaine possession at the Harbour Castle Hilton. But the March 5 gig—presented in its entirety, along with a handful of March 4 tracks—is a snapshot of the Stones sounding as fun and alive and intimate as they ever would. The delightfully sluggish opener, “Honky Tonk Women,” may not be the best evidence of the band’s bulletproof playing at that time. But with the rollicking “All Down the Line” and the slate of tracks from the previous year’s Black and Blue that follows, things coalesce quickly, Mick so fully present, and hilariously overdoing it, on songs like “Crazy Mama” and “Fool to Cry.” And by the time they’re halfway in, the taut “Dance Little Sister” and, appropriately, “Rip This Joint" are essentially the standard against which all other live rock performances of the era are measured. While the blues classics from Love You Live—“Mannish Boy,” “Crackin’ Up,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Around and Around”—have obviously been heard before, they’re given a more reverential framing among these 23 tracks. Here, they’re not so much curios slotted in with live tracks from late-’70s London, LA, and Paris arena shows, but rather illuminating details of the Stones’ bigger picture. There’s also a tender “Worried About You,” which wouldn’t arrive on a studio album until 1981’s Tattoo You. (The song doesn’t appear here, but the Some Girls standout “Miss You” began as a Jagger/Preston jam during the El Mo rehearsals.) Decades later, their peers Roger Daltrey and Paul McCartney would deride the Stones as a mere pub band or blues-covers act, but in the context of this off-the-cuff showcase, as the Stones were transitioning away from the deep cultural significance of their late-’60s and early-’70s output to a more freewheeling, exploratory version of themselves, those supposed epithets couldn’t be more complimentary.

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