Robert Johnson may not have invented the blues, but he remains one of its most influential practitioners. His box set, The Complete Recordings gathers all of his material into one place and should be required listening for any fan of rock or blues music.
Eric Clapton’s career was grounded in the blues and particularly the music of Robert Johnson. His catalog is sprinkled with his songs.
I am a big fan of both the blues and Eric Clapton, so it was with a great deal of anticipation that I awaited Clapton’s cover album of Robert Johnson material. It seemed like a natural. Somehow Me and Mr. Johnson didn’t work out as I expected. It was just too slick and professional. Johnson was passionate, intense and a great technician, but he was definitely not slick.
The CD cover pictures a stark Clapton, seated in front of a picture of Johnson, holding an acoustic guitar. If he had taken the cover to heart he probably would have been better off. Johnson recorded with just his 12 string guitar, while Clapton brings along his band. When you add in the production it veers away from the original intent and style of the music. I wish Clapton would have tackled the songs with just his guitar and let the chips fall where they may.
I have no doubt that Clapton loves the music and truly tries to make it his own and there are a few tracks that rise above the rest. “Traveling Riverside Blues” is played as traditional 12 bar blues. “They’re Red Hot” was an unusual Johnson song as he did not use a 12 string guitar, and it seems to fit Clapton’s style well. “Hellhound On My Trail” is one of the best blues songs of all time and Clapton interprets it well as his vocal presents the intense imagery of the lyrics.
“Love In Vain” is representative of the albums problems as Clapton just gives a bland performance. Compare his version with that of The Rolling Stones on their Let It Bleed album and it just does not measure up.
Clapton had successfully covered a number of Johnson songs in the past but this many together just seemed to be beyond him. What he did create was a technically proficient but ultimately sterile album. If you truly want to hear the music of Robert Johnson interpreted well check out Peter Green’s Me & The Devil and The Robert Johnson Songbook because he got it right.
Maybe Me and Mr. Johnson will serve as an introduction to the music of an important blues legend but as an interpretive effort it leaves a lot to be desired.