Eric Clapton - Me And Mr Johnson
Despite the reputation that has lingered about him from his days in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, where he was pictured on the cover reading a copy of the Beano, through Cream, Blind Faith and onto solo success, the last decade or so has never seen any noticeable thrill regarding the release of a new Eric Clapton album. In the last few years, this has become even more apparent as Clapton has assumed the role of curator at the recorded museum of the blues, firstly releasing an album with BB King and now an album of covers of songs by Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson? If you've never heard of him - there is a very good chance you have not - Johnson is one of the key figures behind the blues of the Missiippi delta, which, decades after he was alive, influenced the blues/rock of the sixties as recorded by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream. Look through the albums released by any of these bands during their commercial and critical peaks and Johnson's music will have a high profile in their work - The Rolling Stones recorded a version of Stop Breakin' Down for Exile On Main St., Led Zeppelin had a version of Travellin' Riverside Blues sitting in their archives for years - neither Plant nor Page wrote the line, "You can squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs down my leg", Johnson did - and Cream, the supergroup that starred featured alongside bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, famously released an electric version of Crossroads (Cross Road Blues) on the live disc of the Wheels Of Fire double album.
These versions, however, do little for the music recorded by Johnson during his short life. As for Robert Johnson, he recorded no more than 41 tracks between his first recording session on 23 November 1936 and his fifth and last on 20 June 1937. Of these, some were alternate versions meaning that only 29 original songs exist, most of which were issued on eleven 78rpm records during his life, most of which were quickly forgotten until being rediscovered decades later. As much as this covers a little of the story of Robert Johnson, his legend was built up around superstition, his sparse, sinister playing, his early death and the wide-open spaces of the southern states of the US. As the stories were passed down, Robert Johnson was a mediocre delta blues player but following a short time away, he returned with so great a playing style that talk immediately spread around the cotton fields around Tennessee that Johnson had met the devil by a crossroads at midnight and had sold his soul in return for the playing of the blues. With songs like Cross Road Blues, Hellhound On The Trail and Me And the Devil Blues, Johnson clearly didn't believe in letting his own legend rest and, following his poisoning in 1938 by a man whose woman was being paid too much attention by Johnson, this legend has only continued to grow.
Despite having heard so many tracks written by Johnson and recorded by others, not to mention Columbia's release of The Complete Recordings in 1990, Johnson's ability was such that familiarity is never allowed to creep in. As with Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Leadbelly and Elmore James, Johnson's music is almost the foundation stone on which so much rock music is built that it resonates through the fifties, sixties and on through every act influenced by The Rollings Stones, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix even to metal, indie/alternative rock and this latest album by Eric Clapton in 2004.
The first thing that anyone familiar with Johnson will notice on looking at this album is the manner in which one of the cover images has been altered to remove a cigarette. There are only two photographs of Johnson in existence - one is a staged photograph of Johnson holding a barre chord on a guitar inside a studio with the other being a hastily shot image of a brooding Johnson holding a guitar with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth - and whilst both are replicated on this sleeve, the small painting of the latter omits the cigarette. It is this playing safe with Johnson that runs off the cover and onto the rest of the album, which is surprising given Clapton's admitted love of the music.
The music recorded by Johnson ranges from the deathly quiet Me And the Devil Blues, through the flirty Come On In My Kitchen and on to the good time of They're Red Hot. Throughout every original Johnson recording, however, is his own guitar playing, which is fluid and untouched by anything other than Johnson's vocals. On Me And Mr Johnson, however, Clapton has brought in Simon Climie - once of eightie pop duo Climie Fisher - and the sparse blues of Johnson's recordings has been filled out with pounding rock drums, blues harp, horns and organ in much the same way as Gary Moore's nineties blues recordings turned full-blooded delta blues into blustering rock. To be fair to Clapton, this album does treat Johnson's original recordings with much more respect than Moore ever did but as good as this album is - and with songs like Johnson's, Clapton would have had to have acted without any sensitivity for this to be a failure - nothing ever really captures the magic of Johnson's original recordings. For example, Come On In My Kitchen has Johnson offering a keening slide guitar riff throughout the song whereas Clapton, although he gets close, just lets the song slip away from him.
Still, all credit to Eric Clapton for recording this album for if it means that he brings a few of his fans to listen to Robert Johnson's original recordings, then he's done them a great service for Johnson is one of the key figures in music over the last century and the more widely he is listened to the better. Beyond being just an introduction, this album has merit in itself and if Clapton isn't quite the match of Robert Johnson, then he is only on a par with The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and his own recording of Crossroads over thirty years ago. Whilst not a classic blues album, this is still very good, even great at times, but is no match for Columbia's two-disc The Complete Recordings.