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Eric Clapton, blues star

Me and Mr. Johnson
Me and Mr. Johnson
By Eric Clapton

Reprise Records: 2004

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This review first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Turbula.

Perhaps Eric Clapton never really wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star; maybe, like Johnny Winter, all he ever wanted to do was play the blues.

You look at the fact that in the just-released "Me and Mr. Johnson" and 1994's "From the Cradle," two of his best solo albums have been all-blues efforts. Add in the further evidence that even his 2001 pairing with B.B. King ("Riding With the King") was more complete than many of his rock-oriented outings, and you wonder if he'd not have been happier sticking to the blues.

Certainly there is a joyous air about "Me and Mr. Johnson" missing from many of his rock recordings. With veterans Steve Gadd (drums) and San Diego's Nathan East (bass) backing him, Clapton is free to play guitar and sing without distraction or the turmoil that has surrounded so much of his rock career (the discord of Cream and Blind Faith; the tragedies surrounding Derek and the Dominos). And by focusing strictly on songs written by blues legend Robert Johnson (whose recordings Clapton credits with inspiring him to pick up music in his youth), Clapton doesn't have to worry about composing any new music of his own.

The result is a crisp, energetic and inspired album from one of rock's guitar gods. While none of the 14 tracks here seems likely to become a definitive reading of Johnson, each remains a small gem of Clapton's guitar playing and impassioned singing.

In fact, not since he was playing guitar for the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers four decades ago has Clapton's playing seemed so carefree and organic. He's joined by friends Billy Preston (keyboards), Andy Fairweather Low (guitar) and drummer Jim Keltner on several tracks, and Jerry Portnoy lays down some mean blues harp. Clapton responds to all this by playing guitar in a totally relaxed mood that swings like crazy, while still offering very sharp, incisive solos.

The arrangements vary from full-on homage ("Kind Hearted Woman Blues," "Come On in My Kitchen") to startling re-interpretations (an after-hours jazz version of "Little Queen of Spades," a honky tonk "They're Red Hot"); each still seems to work, perhaps because Clapton brings a convincing passion to each song, no matter the approach.

The production, thankfully, is clean and straightforward, keeping the focus on the outstanding musicianship.

While fellow Yardbird alum Jeff Beck ventures ever further afield in search of new sounds, Clapton hews closer to the blues that originally seduced him. In both cases, each man seems to be playing the best guitar of a very distinguished and impressive career.