- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

Eric Clapton

Me and Mr. Johnson

Warner/Reprise Records

Eric Clapton perceptively observed years ago that the great thing about Robert Johnson was that he wrote, played and recorded his music solely for himself.

He had no expectation of fame or fortune. He came too early for that. Robert Johnson was elemental blues. His muses were alcohol, Satan and his mongrel minions, and, fatally, women.

Mr. Clapton’s “Me and Mr. Johnson” is free of pretensions, too. There’s no Phil Collins here behind the boards, no Babyface applying adult-contemporary production flourishes.

It’s just Mr. Clapton leading a classy band that includes keyboardist Billy Preston, guitarist Doyle Bramhall and harmonica legend Jerry Portnoy through cycles of 12-bar blues, trading mostly improvisational solos and sturdily paying tribute to a hero.

The album might sell modestly well among blues purists and the Clapton faithful. However, the latter-day Mr. Clapton has already gone to this well twice — 10 years ago with the all-blues “From the Cradle” and again with 2000’s “Riding With the King” collaboration with another hero, B.B. King.

In the ‘60s, Mr. Clapton was such a fanatic of the then-esoteric Robert Johnson that he wouldn’t talk to anyone who hadn’t heard of him. He was a Robert Johnson snob and proud of it. Forty or so years later, he’s willing to share his not-so-secret knowledge.

Mr. Clapton tackles about half of Johnson’s known recordings, avoiding previous offerings of Johnson covers, such as “Malted Milk” and “Walkin’ Blues” from the “Unplugged” album, and the Cream-era workout of “Crossroads.”

As countless others have, Mr. Clapton turns Johnson’s country blues into modern-sounding urban blues. “Me and the Devil Blues” — the quasi-title track — is left acoustically pristine, as is “Come on in My Kitchen,” save for a gospelly refrain.

The rest of these Delta laments take the train ride to Chicago.

Sometimes the updating has mixed results: “Love in Vain” takes on sharp edges that don’t suit the delicate ballad it was in Johnson’s hands.

“If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” “Milkcow’s Calf Blues,” “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” “Hell Hound on My Trail” — Mr. Clapton tears into these with a growl as beautifully tattered as the tones issuing from his Tweed Twin amplifier.

Two updatings that don’t quite fit but don’t quite misfire: “They’re Red Hot,” which becomes a rather too sophisticated shuffle, with a ragtimey solo from Mr. Preston, and a rockabilly twist on “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.”

They sound too darn happy.

Other than those offshoots, “Me and Mr. Johnson” is as pure as grain alcohol — and as potent.

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