A fitting tribute to Robert Johnson!
Eric Clapton is perhaps the most influential British blues guitarist in history (with the exception of Peter Green). He is in a better postion than any other British guitarist to do justice to this powerful material, but while he is undoubtedly a hugely experienced and talented player, when I bought this album I wondered if his touch was a little too light to pull it off.
My first impression was that Clapton's arrangements do not immediately evoke the dark, powerful feel and vivid imagery of Johnson's music. Johnson was not a technically gifted singer, but he sang with great passion, and this is not easily evident in the recordings here. As a guitarist, Johnson shone above his contemporaries, and his combined lead work and bass runs are still evading guitarists today. He was a versatile player with great feeling, and the same can be said for Clapton, who plays within the spirit rather than the letter of Johnson's style here.
And this is really why I like this album - I expect that it will not satisfy some purists, and certainly the choice to use a full group, including electric guitars, is a controversial one, but Clapton is a fine blues musician, and this a tribute to one of his heros, not an album of note-for-note transcriptions. What you get here is an expression of Clapton's genuine love for the music of a blues great, and it is a joyful, accomplished expression, that has as much to do with the blues of the 21st Century as that of the 1930's.
In fact, Clapton's group creates a powerful momentum that does service to this music. It is an easy-rolling, foot-tapping power, that pulls you along without you even realising it, and provides a great platform for the vocals and instrumental solos. For me, Clapton does a fine job with the singing on this album - his voice is not so haunted and emotional as Johnson's, but he obviously knows this music incredibly well, and his timing and phrasing are perfect. The range of his voice is at times surprising too. Some of the tracks here are simply superb; "Hellhound on my Trail" and "Milkcow's Calf Blues" are both taken a low tempo, but drive along relentlessly in the band's skilled hands. "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Come on in My Kitchen" are more acoustically lead, with some great slide work.
Overall, this is an immensely enjoyable album, and an admirable tribute to Robert Johnson, albeit a tribute in the style of a modern blues musician. The musicians here are in great form, with Clapton proving he still has much to say, and the exceptional Billy Preston adding some tremendous organ solos. This is an album that Eric Clapton was destined to make, and I think that it's an important one - but if you want to hear Robert Johnson, buy some recordings by Robert Johnson, as well as this excellent album.