Hellhounds are not, it seems, on the trail of Eric Clapton. In 2004, the graffiti inspiring guitarist released Me & Mr. Johnson, a professed tribute to Robert Johnson, the mythic 1930s bluesman of the Mississippi Delta. These days, Johnson may be more myth than man; he was rumored to have bargained away his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to play the guitar as well as he did. Unlike the searing and heart wrenching original versions by Johnson, Clapton's renditions of Johnson's tunes are safe and sterile; it's the sort of blues music that suburban fortysomethings and fiftysomethings might enjoy at the House of Blues before venturing back home in the SUV before 10:30pm. There is nothing raw or powerful about this record; there is no pain. These versions are very clinical covers of what should be sad songs. In fact, while singing, Clapton sounds so pleased to be performing the songs of his idol. How can it be the blues if you are that happy to be singing them?
Perhaps this is because of the vastly different positions that the two bluesmen occupy. Johnson was a poor nomad who never saw ultracommercial success in life and who was dead at 27. Clapton, of course, is now in his sixties and has lived in celebrity luxury for four decades. Never mind the different sorts of challenges faced by an African American musician in the 1930s as opposed to a white British musician in the 1960s to the present. The two musicians could not be more different, and obviously, any attempt Clapton makes to emulate or pay homage to Johnson would pale in comparison to the original versions. Certainly, Clapton has faced tragedy and trauma in his life, and this has been reflected in his music in the past. However, in attempting Johnson's oeuvre, Clapton simply cannot compete or even emulate him.
To boot, Clapton's versions don't even fare well against tributes performed by other recording artists. Clapton's version of "Love in Vain" seems rather inferior to that of the Rolling Stones, which appeared on their Let It Bleed back in the late 1960s. (A live version appeared on the Stones' 1970 concert album, "'Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!' The Rolling Stones in Concert."). With "Me and the Devil Blues," Clapton takes no risks with his straightforward and uninspiring cover, unlike the far more interesting and phantasmagorical version of that song by the Cowboy Junkies which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1990 film Pump Up The Volume. Even his rendition of "Traveling Riverside Blues" seems drained of the raunchy power and emotion of that recorded by Led Zeppelin back in the day. Strangely, Clapton chooses not to record "Crossroads Blues," Johnson's most famous song. (This is perhaps so because Clapton previously covered the song in the 1960s when he was with the group Cream.).
In sum, avoid this tribute album. You've probably already forgotten it ever existed.