ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 22, 2004
By Steve Newton
Ten years ago, Eric Clapton issued an astounding love letter to the blues titled From the Cradle, which featured some of his most fiery electric-guitar work since the Derek and the Dominos days. Apart from two overdubs, the 16-track CD was a live, unedited studio recording of Clapton and a crack eight-piece band working out on timeless gems by the likes of Lowell Fulson, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Elmore James.
Conspicuous by its absence was anything by Slowhand’s idol, Robert Johnson; many rock fans had gotten their first taste of the Delta bluesman through Cream’s “Crossroads”, a revved-up version of Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” that boasted several classic Clapton licks. Perhaps the British guitar god knew that one day he’d pay serious tribute to his Mississippi mentor with an album devoted entirely to him.
That day has finally come with the release of Me and Mr. Johnson, which sees Clapton and another batch of awesome players—including keyboardist Billy Preston, guitarists Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II, harmonica ace Jerry Portnoy, drummer Steve Gadd, and bassist Nathan East—recreating 14 of the only 29 songs Johnson recorded in 1936 and ’37 during his brief two-year career. Apart from the odd number, such as “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, there isn’t much of From the Cradle’s guitar histrionics; the focus here is on Johnson’s songs and Clapton’s singing, both of which are shown in a winning light. Top tracks include the rollicking “32-20 Blues” and the slide-driven “Traveling Riverside Blues”, but the real standout is the swinging “They’re Red Hot”, which sports sweet solos by Preston, Portnoy, and Bramhall.
If you like Clapton and you love the blues, then Me and Mr. Johnson deserves a slot in your CD collection, right between From the Cradle and the fabulous Clapton–B.B. King collaboration of 2000, Riding With the King.