The Rolling Stones' 'Live at the El Mocambo' Is Essential Rock History for Toronto and Beyond

BY Vish KhannaPublished May 16, 2022

A heads up that you're going to read a fair amount about Charlie Watts over the course of this review of what is the most monumental Canadian Rolling Stones moment in the band's history. 

The late Watts was, as Mick Jagger jokes at one point during this live record, "a jazz drummer who's only doing it for the money; he's really a jazz drummer." Despite the attention paid to Jagger and Keith Richards, Watts was the quiet force behind the Stones' driving swing and power as a band.

And so, with his recent passing, some of us can't help but listen here for him first, as the late-1970s Stones respond to the rise of punk and disco by treating some 600 lucky fans to two nights stocked with covers of blues artists, to whom they've long owed their lunch. Watts, in turn, drove the bus as steady as this scenic route would allow, and now we have this complete, official document of what must've been an overwhelming trip for every passenger on board (including R&B legend and would-be fifth Beatle Billy Preston, who played with the band at these shows). 

The magical aspects of how the Rolling Stones came to put on two secret shows at Toronto's El Mocambo on March 4 and 5, 1977 is, by now, folklore. In a back-to-basics ploy to revisit their origins, as an unknown R&B cover band in southwest London's Crawdaddy Club in the early 1960s, it seems the band just wanted to play some intimate shows and the ElMo was selected as a good venue option, as the band had a fondness for Toronto. Canadian stars April Wine were billed as headliners (and, later that year, released their own Live at the El Mocambo record derived from these same sessions) with unknown openers "the Cockroaches" on the bill; 300 tickets a night were doled out to radio contest winners (or, almost 300; some, like Toronto musicologist Rob Bowman, may have gotten in without a pass at all).

Abandoning the original cover band plan to some extent, the Stones met the shocked excitement in the room with the tension-building opening of "Honky Tonk Women," with Richards setting the pace and Watts meeting him, characteristically, just behind the beat. Jagger is at peak power, coming in dark and loud with a hint of friendly menace, revving up the Stones' motor for "All Down the Line." As they do later on the always-majestic "Tumbling Dice" and the proto-punk of "Rip This Joint," the Stones and Jagger in Toronto make Exile on Main Street tunes sound slicker but also occasionally more ragged than the frozen versions.
Seedier '70s Stones fare like "Fool to Cry," "Dance Little Sister," and "Star Star" seem custom built for a stage of the time, when a band had to fight to retain audiences who might be swayed by either mosh pits or Saturday night fever (and also AC/DC — young, hungry and ravaging the world, forcing the old rock 'n' roll guard to overdrive their amps more).

The Stones always seemed to know what was happening; even in their faithful tributes to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Big Maceo Merriweather, and Howlin' Wolf, the ear-to-the-ground Stones were wise enough to bolster the ska flavour of Bo Diddley's "Crackin' Up" with more pronounced reggae flare, with Watts, Richards and bassist Bill Wyman locking in for every kind of groove the set list threw at them, including iconic originals "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Brown Sugar."

Even in 1977, the Stones armed themselves as survivors, winking at fads rather than looking them in the eye, and fiddling with trends but never straying so far from their core that they lost their way (until Jagger got a bit bored in the 1980s). Aside from some indulgent nostalgia and the debut of "Worried About You" well before its release on 1981's Tattoo You, it sounds like the goal of these Toronto nights was pure entertainment.

It's rather stunning to finally have such a pristine and mighty record of this happening, which truly comes to life on Live at the El Mocambo. From Jagger's playful banter ("Everything alright in the critics' section?" he asks sardonically) to the band playing quite tightly around Charlie Watts, as he messes beautifully with time and space so that the Stones can transcend them both, the band innocently gave Toronto and the world something incredible to talk about for four decades and counting.

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