I love the years when The Rolling Stones were one of the best blues bands on the planet, before they were frozen in time in the pop culture consciousness as famous for their personal and musical indulgences and excesses as for the music.
On Air collects live performances from the BBC from 1963-65 and captures them when they were five British kids possessed of both the skill and attitude that would see them segue from credibly covering blues and rock standards to a band that would write some of the greatest, most enduring songs of the 20th century.
You can hear that on early studio albums but hearing it live is remarkable and revelatory. You get an education in how much changed in the way records are made. They didn't spend months in the studio searching for drum sounds, mucking about with mic placement, and recording endless overdubs. There would be no hiding behind multiple takes, horn sections, and backing vocalists recorded in a separate booth and that is even more pronounced on this set.
The ability to lay it down fast and lean is even more evident in the audible edge and swagger in these performances. We are reminded Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts are perhaps the preeminent rhythm section in rock history. We get to hear Richards and Brian Jones' riffs and leads interlock seamlessly and yet there is so much space and groove. Mick Jagger presides over his powerhouse band with vocals oozing charisma as he croons, growls, and sneers with sincerity and indifference.
Bootleggers have had their hands on much of this for years but this is the first presentation of most of this material. Some effort has been made to improve sound quality and for the most part succeeds without sacrificing immediaccy.
This anthology also avoids a common trap by piling on multiple performances of the same handful of songs. The deluxe edition offers 32 individual songs comprised of some originals as well as the covers that were staples of their London club gigs. There are also tunes that were either never attempted or never included on those early studio albums.
On Air is is more than a time capsule or a nice supplement to their early records but rather is proof The Rolling Stones were a great rock and roll band long before they were dubbed The Greatest Rock & Roll Band on earth.