Record Review - 2 June 17 2004

The dichotomy of Eric Clapton's pop vs. roots career continues with this tribute to Robert Johnson, Clapton's first all blues album in a decade. Recalling the early '60s when he fled to British blues maven John Mayall because he felt the Yardbirds' music was becoming too commercial, Clapton abandons his more profitable leanings to dive into Johnson's storied catalog.

It would be easy, even logical, to dismiss this as a credibility-seeking vanity project. But Clapton's blues integrity has always been above reproach even when the smarmy ballads, adult pop and polished productions drowned his more humble sensibilities.

With stripped-down backing from respected pros including drummer Steve Gadd, harpist Jerry Portnoy and keyboardist Billy Preston, Clapton gets serious. Cranky, lunging, stompers ("Traveling Riverside Blues"), upbeat boogie-woogie ("Last Fair Deal Gone Down," "32-20 Blues"), rustic Delta ruminations ("Come on in My Kitchen") and lowdown burners ("Kind Hearted Woman Blues") exhibit Clapton's proficiency throughout a diverse set of traditional styles.

While nothing is revelatory, the guitarist's dedication is obvious. Clapton sings like he needs his lemon squeezed till the juice runs down his leg. His approach is overly reverent, but this is miles away from the ultra-smooth Keb' Mo' territory critics might have anticipated. Rather, it's a successful and emotional tribute by a bluesman to a bluesman, and a fulfilling gift from the artist to a segment of his audience.

Eric Clapton plays Philips Arena Fri., June 18. 7:30 p.m. $61.50-$85.