I’ve never quite understood those who would bash Eric Clapton. Yes, he’s done stuff that maybe wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But anyone who’s been around for 40 years has done that, right? I loved his last effort, Reptile, although it was soundly beaten by a lot of folks (especially guitarists). That said, I must put Clapton’s new effort, Me & Mr. Johnson, at the top of the Clapton heap.
It comes as a shock to no one familiar with the history of rock and roll that Clapton would do a tribute to Robert Johnson. The 40-odd recordings Johnson did in the 1930s are the basis for a large part of rock and roll history, and Clapton has always said it was Johnson who made the most soulful music he’s ever heard. He has, of course, covered Johnson plenty in the past. Cream’s version of “Crossroads” helped establish him as a guitar god in the ’60s. His very funky “Steady Rollin’ Man” was a highlight of 461 Ocean Boulevard. Well, here he puts his heart and soul into some of Johnson’s best-known works.
I don’t recall a record where Clapton’s vocals have impressed me more. From a singing standpoint, he obviously knows these songs like the back of his hand, and he instills them with passion and a sense of urgency. Clapton’s voice growls when needed, soars on yelps that copy (but don’t mimic) Johnson. And, thankfully, nobody saw the need to “clean up” the lyrics – the politically-correct crowd would certainly call for changes on cuts like “Me and the Devil Blues,” and when Eric slips into the vernacular, some may cringe. Oh, well. It’s part and parcel of Clapton knowing these songs so well and feeling what they’re about.
But because you hold this publication in your calloused fingers, you love E.C. for his guitar work. And here, he doesn’t disappoint. “When You Got A Good Friend” is turned into a lazy shuffle with slightly distorted blistering guitar work. “Little Queen of Spades” is a masterful slow blues with a Billy Preston organ solo that leads into Clapton’s solo – one of the highlights of the record. “They’re Red Hot” was one of the tunes Johnson would play to get the folks on the dance floor. Well, this version will do the same; a great arrangement, big-time vocal, and a dobro out that’s guaranteed to make the toes tap. “Love In Vain” gets a bit of the Jimmy Reed treatment with a burning Clapton solo. And what Johnson tribute would be complete without his classic walk-down intro? There are a couple here that lead to the meat of the song, but my favorite is “Me and the Devil.” What a sound! There are not any surprises in these solos, but there’s a ton of passion.
Clapton says they learned these songs as a band, and recorded them pretty much live. It shows. Every player has a great feel for the material. Of course, when you’re backed by Nathan East on bass, Steve Gadd on drums, the very underrated Andy Fairweather-Low and Doyle Bramhall, II on guitars, Billy Preston on keyboards, and Jerry Portnoy on harmonica, it’s tough to go wrong.
This will undoubtedly go down as one of the top blues records of the year. Unlike From the Cradle, where Eric paid tribute by doing note-for-note covers of classic blues tunes, here he sticks with the basic feel Johnson put there, but rearranges, and for the most part plugs in to make them his own. So while these will always be Robert Johnson’s songs, Clapton has made them a strong part of his catalog.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jun ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.