By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

April 8, 2004

Eric Clapton
"Me and Mr. Johnson
Reprise Records

Fans hoping Eric Clapton's "Me and Mr. Johnson" CD would mark a return to some grit and passion so lacking in Clapton's recent, increasingly soft-rock solo albums may be disappointed.

One of the great guitarists of his generation, Clapton, as a player in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and in Cream, long ago paid his dues to the old American bluesmen without whom rock would not exist.

So it's amazing, really, that it took almost 40 years for Clapton to pay homage to Robert Johnson, the wellspring of the blues and one of Clapton's main influences, over an entire CD. It's equally amazing that, until now, Clapton had covered only five Johnson songs, including his signature "Crossroads," with Cream, in 1968.

Clapton takes on 14 of the 29 Johnson songs known to exist and guides a crack band through jump blues, Chicago styles and shuffles.

But the production is so polished and so perfect that very little stands out - with the exception of the keyboards of ex-Beatles sideman Billy Preston.

Even Clapton's guitar, as vital and recognizable as it still is, is just another ingredient in the mix.

The best blues is raw, desperate and in your face. "Me and Mr. Johnson" is reverential and civilized.

Sure, Clapton has nothing to prove - but maybe that's the problem.