CD Review: Me and Mr Johnson - Eric Clapton
Glenn Weiser
Metroland, May 13, 2004

Eric Clapton
Me and Mr. Johnson (Reprise)

If Eric Clapton had paired the heartfelt singing that marked his Unplugged (1992) with the guitar virtuosity that graced his 1994 From the Cradle on his newest release, it might have been a milestone in the famed British rocker’s career. But, alas—for the most part, Me and Mr. Johnson, Slowhand’s tribute to the fabled prewar Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, offers little of either.

Clapton has revered Johnson’s music ever since he was first mesmerized by it as a teenager; his 1968 live version of Johnson’s “Crossroads” (on Cream’s Wheels of Fire LP) is among the greatest blues-rock cuts. On Me and Mr. Johnson, he has avoided trying to recreate Johnson’s complex fingerpicked guitar parts note-for-note, instead using an ace backing band consisting of fellow guitarists Andy Fairweather-Low and Doyle Bramhall, bassists Nathan East and Pino Palladino, keyboardist Billy Preston, former Muddy Waters harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, and drummers Steve Gadd and Jim Keltner to interpret 14 of the 1930s blues classics on electric and acoustic guitars.

Having chosen to remain en ensemble, Clapton should shine here, but shortcomings plague the record. Good blues singing must be impassioned, but his vocals, while on key and well-phrased, sound desultory compared with those on Unplugged and Layla. Neither does his guitar work satisfy: With the exceptions of the slow blues solos on “Kind Hearted Woman” and “Little Queen of Spades,” Clapton has scaled back his chops to a simpler style that seems intended as an homage to Johnson’s early blues. But in forgoing strutting the stuff that made him a guitar god, he has in this listener's view erred in artistic judgment. Johnson, after all, was a virtuoso himself, and Clapton’s bedazzling riffs would not have been irreverent here.

Me and Mr. Johnson is not without its virtues, though. On “Travelin’ Riverside Blues,” Clapton delivers some tasty electric slide, and also plays acoustic guitar well in the Delta blues style on “Me and the Devil.” Jerry Portnoy’s harmonica, although a little too far down in the mix, is perfectly styled to the mood of the record and even steals the show on “If I had Possession Over Judgment Day.” And aside from all else, if Eric Clapton with his self-effacing offering brings more listeners to the music of Robert Johnson, he will have done him a valuable service indeed.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                     Copyright 2004 Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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