Eric Clapton played the blues with fire and abandon when he was younger, but has matured into more of a blues scholar in his later years. There's nothing to be ashamed of on his new tribute to blues pioneer Robert Johnson, "Me and Mr. Johnson" (Reprise). The care and devotion to the medium remains the same, but this is mostly a tasteful, velvet-glove look at the blues rather than anything filled with the explosiveness of his days in Cream or Derek & the Dominos.
It's a great album if you're a blues purist, but just a good album if you're expecting runaway passion and sweat-drenched solos. Suffice it to say that Stevie Ray Vaughan (and a younger Clapton) might have done these songs differently. And there's nothing that sends shivers up the spine like Aerosmith's "Baby, Please Don't Go," the new retro single from the group's blues album, "Honkin' on Bobo," which is due out March 30.
Clapton's disciple role is the big story of his tribute to Johnson, the Mississippi bluesman who wrote and recorded 29 songs, of which 14 are on this new CD. Much of the disc is impeccably recorded, and there are a few exciting flashes on "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" (with Clapton on electric slide guitar), the jump-bluesy "They're Red Hot" (with pianist Billy Preston and Boston harmonica ace Jerry Portnoy nearly stealing the show), and "Little Queen of Spades," with Clapton heating up on guitar before the song ends too soon.
It's instructive to note that only five of the 14 songs are over four minutes in length, and none is over five minutes. Thus, Clapton never stretches too far or takes the listener on the journeys of old. It's hard to believe that this is the same man who used to play some endless (and endlessly fascinating) solos in Cream. He's a picture of economy today. He still has the chops, but the reckless adventuring is gone. For example, his version of Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues" is tasty, but no match for the Led Zeppelin version.
Still, this is an enjoyable album if you set aside Clapton's larger-than-life legacy. He sings compellingly on the country-blues of "Come on in My Kitchen" and the stomp of "Stop Breakin' Down Blues," though he misses the scary intensity at the heart of "32-20 Blues" and "Hell Hound on My Trail." It's great that Clapton is keeping Johnson's memory alive -- and look for him to do more of that on an expected tour this summer -- but you need to scale down your expectations to fully appreciate his mission.