Once proclaiming himself a blues purist when he quit the Yardbirds to maintain his loyalty to the genre by joining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton has morphed over the years into a most careerist musician. Yet the absolutely prosaic quality of so much of that music, including his last live album One More Car, One More Rider , cannot in any way lessen the profound impact Clapton has had on modern blues. Unfortunately, Me & Mr. Johnson does little to extend his redoubtable legacy.
The music throughout this album sounds curiously academic, as if Clapton thought the concept of devoting an album to blues icon Robert Johnson was little more than a good idea and not a personal statement. Perhaps not surprisingly, the flashes of inspiration appear on the least well-known songs: Clapton’s voice displays some deep feeling on “Traveling Riverside Blues,” perhaps because it’s lyrically a close cousin to “Crossroads,” which he rendered in such incendiary fashion with Cream. “Me and the Devil Blues” stands out too because of its acoustic arrangement, during which Clapton plays some stinging bottleneck fills in one of the few moments of inspired playing that appear on the album.
The musicianship around Clapton here is perfectly adequate throughout, which is ultimately part of the problem with Me & Mr. Johnson. Clapton might’ve done well to collaborate here with some hungry young bluesmen like the North Mississippi All-Stars as a means of reinvigorating the music and, by extension, himself. As it is, his longstanding band of studio pros and seasoned veterans, including drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Nathan East, play all the right notes, but there is less passion here than on Eric Clapton’s last blues session, From the Cradle (where an self-referential autobiographical strain ran through both his singing and playing).
There are two basic arrangements given to the material here—one that emphasizes heavy electric guitar chording like that which adorns “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” and one such as “Hellhound on My Trail,” in which harp shadows Clapton’s vocal to no particular effect. While none of this sounds exactly hurried, and it certainly doesn’t sound complacent either, the lack of imagination in the arrangements begs the question of genuine commitment to the project. The end result is curiously bland, bereft of joy or fire, bespeaking an absence of genuine effort to work up imaginative arrangements.
Me & Mr. Johnson recalls Eric Clapton’s comeback album 461 Ocean Blvd in that he seems determined to keep the spotlight off himself and focused instead on the subject of the album and the object of his homage. Admirable though that may be, in taking this approach, Slowhand shortchanges not only his listeners, but the music as well, leaving these great songs in the form of museum pieces rather than the living breathing expression of ecstasy and sorrow the blues is meant to be.
Personnel: Eric Clapton: vocals and guitars; Steve Gadd: drums; Nathan East: bass; Billy Preston: Hammond organ and piano; Andy Fairweather Low: guitars; Jerry Portnoy: harmonica; Jim Keltner: drums on track 5; Pino Palladino: bass on track 5