Me and Mr. Johnson
I mean really, why?
Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs. They are some of the scariest, truest music ever performed. They have served as a jumping off point for literally thousands of cover versions, not to mention a few careers (Clapton’s being one, for example). Sometimes the versions work — the Stones take on “Stop Breakin’ Down” on Exile, for one — and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes, a version will fall squarely in the middle. It is into this morass of mediocrity that we can safely toss the 12 cuts that Eric Clapton has served up here. Great songs, great band (including Billy Preston, Doyle Bramhall II and others), but less mojo than a box of hair.
Clapton has already shown he can take a Johnson song and capture it as his own — Cream’s incendiary take on “Crossroads” is one — but the versions here are only marginally more interesting than you’d hear at any open mic night at the local blues bar, and they deserve better. And since you’re only performing half or so of the songs the man wrote, why include the only stinker in the bunch, “They’re Red Hot,” a silly bit of jump blues that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Johnson canon?
In the end, you are left asking, “why?” Why, at this stage of his career, does Clapton feel the need to trot out a record like this? Only Eric knows, of course, and it isn’t really any of our business. One notion could be that with his commitment to so many charitable causes, this is yet another one. The record is assured of large sales, simply because of who recorded it, flowing most likely well-needed cash to the heirs of Robert Johnson. Nothing wrong with that. Popular culture owes a debt unpayable to Johnson for what he helped create. Hopefully this well-intended, yet ultimately snoozing effort will help balance the books, if only a little bit.
Reprise Records: http://www.repriserecords.com/