It’s surprising that this collection of Robert Johnson covers is only Clapton’s second all-blues LP as a solo artist in more than 30 years. Since hitting paydirt down at the Crossroads, he’s periodically raided the Johnson songbook, recording “Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man”, “Malted Milk”, “Walkin’ Blues” and “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” at various times. An entire album of Johnson songs was surely a Grammy-winner waiting to happen.
So why now? Well, according to Clapton he felt he had to wait until he was “an old man” before he could do full justice to Johnson’s devil-dealing legacy. Listen to 1994’s From The Cradle, his only previous all-blues album, and you can hear what he means. The guitar-playing is devastating, but his singing fails to convince. A decade later, he’s begun to sound the part. He doesn’t have that doomed, hellhound-on-my-trail intensity that makes Johnson’s recordings so spooky. But, at 58, he sounds like a man who has faced down more than a few canine devils of his own.
The 14 songs offer surprisingly varied fare, too. The rhythm section provides an authentic, bottomless thump to “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “When You Got A Good Friend”. “Me And The Devil Blues” and “Come On In My Kitchen” are moody, acoustic marvels. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” is an earthy, rollicking boogie and “They’re Red Hot” jumps like a scalded Mississippi cat. Billy Preston is superb on keyboards, Jerry Portnoy’s blues harp wails in all the right places and there’s some potent slide guitar from Doyle Bramhall, who provides a perfect foil to the white-hot licks of ol’ Slowhand himself.