2004: Me and Mr Johnson
Me and Mr Johnson
Rated as: Album
Album Status: of Discographical Interest
Specific Genre: Electric Blues
Main Genre: Blues
Undertones: Chicago Blues
1. When You Got a Good Friend 2. Little Queen of Spades 3. They’re Red Hot 4. Me and the Devil Blues 5. Travelling Riverside Blues 6. Last Fair Deal Gone Down 7. Stop Breakin‘ Down Blues 8. Milkcow’s Calf Blues 9. Kind Hearted Woman Blues 10. Come on in My Kitchen 11. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day 12. Love in Vain 13. 32-20 Blues 14. Hell Hound on My Trail
Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine
As the title – a play on Johnson’s „Me and The Devil Blues“ – doesn’t suggest, Eric Clapton reimagines Robert Johnson’s catalogue of haunting, forlorn, sparse blues as a fun, cheerful romp. The good thing about this decision is that there are no ambiguities about it. This is the kind of relaxed, boisterous electric Chicago blues that Clapton went to musical school with, which dominated the output of popular 1970s and -80s blues and which he only partly followed on his only other straight blues album, 1994’s From the Cradle.
Belying the down-home, decidedly ‚acoustic‘ aesthetics of the album cover (which is outdated in an unsuspected way – a third photograph of Johnson has surfaced eversince, but who could’ve known) with his straight electric blues combo, this might make one think of the exhilarating Cream-reinventions of ethereal Skip James-numbers („I’m So Glad“) or the legendary cover of Johnson’s „Crossroads“. But this homage-album is an entirely different affair, with a consoling, good-natured, smotheringly nostalgic approach that in itself isn’t the problem – but nuance and, so to speak, any individual interpretation of a given song get lost in the overall joviality. Unsurprisingly, this works best on bouncier numbers like the ragtime/hokum „They’re Red Hot“, but that one was an oddity at least in Johnson’s recorded catalogue to begin with (for all we know, he could have had dozens of these shuffling folk and dance numbers in his repertoire like every self-respecting ‚blues‘ performer of the time – there was a market to supply with entertainment and most of these guys had a much broader catalogue than what this or that Lomax recorded).
I can see how this would appeal to Clapton-fans, but laidback as it is, there is a cloud of complacency here. This is the easiest way to make such an album: just have fun with those great songs, suppose a sense of ‚modesty‘. On the upside, this is so to speak the ‚back catalogue‘ of Johnson’s songbook – no „Sweet Home Chicago“, no „I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom“, no „Ramblin’ On My Mind“ – good! On the downside, Clapton uses these songs to play them like unimaginative versions of mentioned, absent standards – take every clichéd electric blues rock element, make it comfy and apply. There is not a note on this record that isn’t a hundred percent predictable, be it the rather subdued rhythm section, the functional piano licks, the disciplined lead guitar or even Clapton’s cautious, very epigonal singing (he tries no tricks with his vocals, maybe for the better). Well, well. Be sure to pick this up if that is what you’re looking for – Clapton romping through fun, in the end indistinct blues rock songs – but I’m afraid as a film, it’d be called „Deconstructing Eric“.