April 15, 2004

Faking the Blues

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Tribute albums require an almost impossible balance between slavish worship and groundless distortion. In other words, if you don’t want your idol rolling over in his grave or your mutual fans deciding that they can just stick to the original, you have to figure out how to make the material sound like it belongs to you while maintaining the elements that made you a fan in the first place. And Eric Clapton may be god, but on Me and Mr. Johnson, he doesn’t have this trick quite mastered.

A tribute album dedicated to Robert Johnson seems superfluous in the first place. The story of a certain appointment he kept at midnight in Mississippi has worked itself so deep into the fabric of 20th century myth that when George Clooney & Co. picked up a hitchhiker at a crossroads in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, audiences started nodding knowingly before they even learned the character’s name.

Clapton’s early work with The Yardbirds and Cream, culminating in a blistering version of Johnson’s “Crossroads,” was less a tribute than an offering from a disciple possessed by the object of his worship. Then Clapton was able to play with not only awe but passion, freedom, and no little talent. Now, all that has faded (well, not the talent; Clapton can still work a fret better than anyone else), leaving only his obvious reverence for Johnson and too-faithful renderings of “They’re Red Hot,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and “When You Got A Good Friend.” Afraid of being unworthy of Johnson’s legacy / mantle, Clapton makes changes only in orchestration and rhythm. He doesn’t seem to be able to get inside the lyrics and there are a surprising number of tracks where his vocals are nothing better than mediocre white boy blues. Clapton’s interpretations come off the worst with “Stop Breaking Down Blues” and “Love In Vain.” Clapton seems to approach a lot of songs with the idea that he has to sound different, and refuses to let the form of the song dictate his playing. He’s always worried about what’s already been played, and with these two songs he has to deny himself not one, but two arrangements. He’s not only competing with Johnson but with the Rolling Stones at the top of their game: they covered “Breaking Down” on Exile and “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed. The contrast between Clapton’s takes and those of his fellow invaders is astonishing. The Stones play like they just heard the songs for the first time while Clapton is weighed down by history at every chord change.

But when he gets it — as he does on “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Me and the Devil Blues” he manages to craft songs that tramp though the album with the Delta mud still clinging to them and sound like Clapton’s dragged himself along every mile they recount. On “Kitchen,” he digs past the single entendres to find a hard bass line and deeply sexy, growling guitar. He sings without a hint of a wink, dragging out the supreme self-confidence and menace that’s always lurked at the heart of the song.

With “Me and The Devil,” Clapton does some of his best work. The drums and guitars are so heavy and sluggish that every note requires a monumental effort to complete. The sense of desperation and tiredness is so overwhelming that it’s easy to interpret the devil as depression, but then the fear in Clapton’s voice ensures that this Satan is no mere metaphor.

And if that occasional brilliance weren’t enough, the last two tracks would make up for all manner of sins. On “32-20 Blues,” Clapton exhibits his mastery of that American offspring of traditional murder ballads: The truly fucked-up sick-love song. Here Clapton’s counterintuitive setting of pseudo-music hall works perfectly, turning the song into a preening, exultant shout. He finds the humor in lines like “If I send for my baby, and she don’t come/ All the doctors in Wisconsin sure can’t help her none … She got a 30 special/ But I fear it’s much too light.” In all this praise of fire power, there’s still a moment of howling sadness and, perhaps, regret: “Oww … Baby, where’d you stay last night?” There’s something a little scary about listening to a guy planning a murder, but it’s nothing compared to the downright hair-raising terror Clapton evokes on the closer. “Hell Hound On My Trail” is reason enough to buy the album, but you should probably purchase a night-light while you’re at it. The song, anchored by Clapton’s adaptation of Johnson’s signature sound (guitar playing two lines, a band unto itself) runs flat out, lungs burning. The bass stutters with fear, or maybe exhaustion, and Clapton sings like he’s looking over his shoulder. After the song fades out, don’t be surprised if you find yourself doing the same.

Archived article by Erica Stein
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer