I have never really liked Eric Clapton.
But I have for a very long time liked what Eric Clapton liked, the Delta Blues, and in particular Robert Johnson, the Delta bluesman who would be more myth than fact if it were not for the incomparable legacy of recordings we were lucky enough to be left to posterity. So it was therefore with some trepidation (and the faint hope that I might actually like it) that I came to hear 2004's Me and Mr. Johnson (Reprise, 2004). Call me prejudiced, but I was right. Immaculately recorded, perfectly played, I hated it.
Was the album a well-intentioned 'homage?' Or was it a cynical attempt by an already fairly well to do musician – even though he has on occasion had to sell on some of his very well used guitars and has had a life not without personal tragedy – to cash in on the myth of Johnson? Or was it my own snobbery and preference for the scratchy LP of even scratchier recordings I bought in junior high school? Or was it just that Eric Clapton's too perfect renditions of Johnson's less than perfect but startlingly original songs of despair, sexual longing and a deep unhappiness that belied Mr. Johnson's relatively young age seemed false when played by Clapton? I think it is all these things.
Clapton's renditions of Mr. Johnson's songs are inversions. The words and the chords are the same, but the presentation is opposite. And whereas Mr. Johnson may never have had the pleasure of receiving a monthly bill from the electric company, they definitely know Clapton's number at the local electric company. I doubt Robert J – even I am writing it that way now – even had a single piece of ID in his wallet. And I am not saying that the blues are incompatible with electric amplification – witness John Lee Hooker to name one – or cannot be played by living musicians – too many to witness here – or even that Delta Blues should be preserved in aspic. If a tradition is to continue it must be practiced. And if it is to live, it must evolve.
But you know what? I still thought it was just snobbery that prevented me from appreciating Mr. E.C. and that is why I decided to give Clapton one last chance with Sessions with Mr. J (Reprise, 2004), a CD and DVD set and I am glad I did. The CD is still a love it or hate it affair. If you love what Clapton does today, you'll pretty much by definition love it. But what piqued my interest was firstly that I have really been enjoying music DVDs lately. Heresy I know, but I am even becoming interested in surround sound for music and not just for movies. (The Ecumenical Audiophile likes to keep an open mind.) Four things therefore attracted me to this DVD:
1.) Mr. Johnson
2.) There would be no question about the quality of the recording of either the CD or DVD. This was Mr. Clapton after all.
3.) I felt I deserved a present, it was that kind of day.
4.) Supposedly, these were out-takes that might not have the polish of the previous effort. OK. That's four reasons.
How is it? The CD is typical Clapton. Even Clapton's out-takes are disgustingly perfect. There is no doubt, this much is obvious, and it is a wonder that I even raise the question, that Clapton knows Johnson through Johnson's songs inside out. I dare say that no Delta Musicologist who may or may not know more facts, such facts as there are, about Mr. Johnson, so clearly has seen into Mr. Johnson's soul as Clapton has.
But this CD, as ever with Clapton, is a Clapton CD and it still bears all the hallmarks of that sickening perfection that all of Clapton's later solo work embodies. Even Clapton's Unplugged bares a gloss that would embarrass a bonnet painter at the old Aston Martin body shop. The Mr. Johnson on this album is Mr. Clapton's Mr. Johnson. Not mine. Not yours. Not either of the Lomaxes. Not anyone other than Eric's, which is no bad thing if you like that sort of thing and it is of course Clapton's album.
Mainly electric, Clapton's renditions are faithful to Clapton. Brilliant session musicianship, impeccable mastering, and absolutely on the beat. It is as if Steely Dan chose to cover W. C. Handy. Many of the Johnson's most famous songs are here including "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," "Traveling Riverside Blues," "Milkcow Blues," and "Terraplane Blues." About as close to Robert J as I will ever come is that on my mother's side great grandfather's first car was a Terraplane, quite an exotic bit of machinery for Sault St. Marie I have been given to understand.
But, and this is a big butt (not quite as big as the one in Finding Nemo) the CD leaves me cold. Very cold. Where this CD/DVD combo comes to life is in the DVD. It is here where we begin to understand how Clapton has come to understand Johnson and it is at this point in the review where I become generous.
The accompanying DVD is in fact worth a view, even two. It is not as intrinsically interesting as the wonderful DVD of the Dark Side of the Moon (2003) with its delicious outtakes and interviews, but it is still worth watching. Recorded in stereo PCM, 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS, Sessions with Robert J should accommodate the most modest to advanced setup. I watched it both in two channel and DTS, finding the DTS version far the more interesting as the mix seemed to place you not so much in the middle of the band as in the middle of the recording studio.
Interspersed between various sessions in various locations from Texas to are one on ones with Clapton exhibiting remarkable verbal insight into the songs of Mr. Johnson. Unfortunately, between the verbal insights are some of the worst and best played Johnson covers I have ever heard. Sonically, this DVD is perfect. Musically, for me anyway, it also left me cold. For anyone interested in the songs of Robert Johnson, I beg of you, beg, borrow or steal a copy of Robert Johnson in the original. Hi-fi it's not. Music it is.