By 1977, the Rolling Stones were in trouble. Their previous albums, It’s Only Rock’n Roll and Black and Blue, did not match the heights of their halcyon run of legendary albums from 1968 to 1973. The loss of Mick Taylor was a tremendous blow to them artistically, and Keith Richards’ drug habit was spiraling out of control and affecting his musical ability. Despite bringing in former Faces guitarist Ron Wood to the fold, the band struggled to match the fireworks of their peak years, and their live shows had become sloppy and lethargic, lacking in the vigor and danger that made their 1971-73 treks among rock’s most celebrated live experiences.
After their widely criticized 1976 tour of Europe, the band themselves realized what everyone had known for some time: the Stones needed an injection. Not the kind that was slowly killing Keith, but a fresh, energetic platform to reestablish themselves as rock’s most exciting band and a true force to be reckoned with.
On March 4th and 5th, 1977, the band booked two gigs at Toronto’s legendary El Mocambo club, a 500 seat venue where local bands made their bones, as opposed to the 20,000 seat arenas the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band had grown accustomed to since their 1960s’ heyday. Keith had just been busted in Toronto on a heroine charge, so the performance was a sort of goodwill gesture in that regard. The band hadn’t played in a venue of this size since they were starting out.
Bootlegs of this show have circulated in fragmented form since shortly after the show was performed, but in 2022, in preparation for the band’s 60th anniversary, the Stones have finally released tracks from both shows in their entirety. The release, simply titled El Mocambo ’77, confirms what was thought of all this years: the El Mocambo shows are among the greatest and most important Rolling Stones shows of all time.
From end to end, this is the Stones at their best: raw, loud, gritty, snarling, dangerous, teetering on the edge of chaos. Sloppy, but ‘good sloppy’: the entire band is in a groove and playing for their lives, especially Keith who got his shit together for these shows and gave some of the most searing guitar work of his entire career. He owns this entire show and crushes every dirty lick, riff and rhythm that comes his way. Mick is at his lascivious best, Wyman and Watts hold down the fort as forcefully as they always have, and Wood fully comes into his own, perfecting his signature ‘weaving’ with Keith and laying down some smoking hot axe work of his own on tracks like “Crackin’ Up” and “Worried About You.”
There isn’t a weak performance of any of the 23 songs, but some of the highlights include arresting renditions of Stones classics “Honky Tonk Women” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” a pulsating “Hot Stuff,” and the forgotten gem “Dance Little Sister” that barely stays on track but manages to be one of the most exciting Stones live cuts of all time. The blues cuts, particularly “Worried Life Blues” and “Mannish Boy,” show why the Stones are the only white boys who can do black blues music justice, injecting their own personalities into music while maintaining reverence for their progenitors.
The sound quality brings out the revelatory quality of the full performances out further, not losing any nuances or making the music sound too clean for its own good. Everything you’re meant to hear jumps right out of the speakers.
Coupled with beautiful packaging that delves deep into the shows’ legacy, El Mocambo ’77 sits comfortably up there with Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out and Brussels Affair ’73 as one of their best live releases, a forceful reminder of when they were far more than rock’s most entertaining nostalgia act and truly the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.