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Classic Album Reviews: Aerosmith | Honkin’ on Bobo / Eric Clapton | Me And Mr. Johnson

The rock gods dish up some blues covers — & the results may surprise you.

This came out in 2004 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


They’re famous white bazillionaires who travel the world in private jets and stretch limos, and who spend more time at AA meetings in Malibu than they do working for the man, drinking ’shine or picking a fight in a juke joint. So tell me: What in the world could Aerosmith and Eric Clapton possibly have the blues about?

Oh yeah, we forgot: They’re best days are long behind them. OK, maybe not totally — after all, they can still sell arenaloads of concert tickets. But let’s face it, they’re both musical dinosaurs. (Pop quiz: Name the last memorable album by either one.) I’ll grant you that they used to be great. They used to play the blues like they meant it. But now, what they really need is a quick injection of musical credibility. And that, I suspect, is what motivated Aerosmith and EC to issue blues-tribute CDs this week. But even if they did start from the same place, the results couldn’t be more different. Or more surprising.

Let’s start with Aerosmith. They used to cover James Brown and Train Kept A-Rollin’ before they cleaned up, sold out and climbed on the Diane Warren power-ballad gravy train. Naturally, I didn’t expect much from their long-awaited set Honkin’ On Bobo. And granted, the disc doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises — just a slew of revved-up remakes of standards like Baby, Please Don’t Go, Road Runner, Eyesight To The Blind, You Gotta Move and I’m Ready. But here’s something you weren’t expecting: It rocks. And in a way Aerosmith haven’t rocked for years, if not decades.

I give most of the credit to veteran producer Jack Douglas, who helmed classic Aerosmith albums like Toys In The Attic and Rocks but wisely sat out recent dreck like Just Push Play. Back behind the boards, he makes these dozen tracks sound just like one of those old ’70s LPs, pushing guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford to opposite ends of the mix, using rock-solid drummer Joey Kramer and bassist Tom Hamilton to anchor the middle, and letting Steven Tyler sling his hoodoo voodoo all over the place. The boys hold up their end of the bargain and then some. Perry and Whitford’s guitar interplay is a thing of beauty, the rhythm section kicks with more enthusiasm than they have since the ’80s, and Tyler, freed from the chains of his cheeseball double entendres and arena-rock shlock, sounds like he’s having a ball. As will you — calculated career move or not, Honkin’ On Bobo is the grittiest, earthiest, rockingest and just plain Aerosmithiest album Aerosmith have made since they kicked dope.

I wish I felt the same affection for Clapton’s Me And Mr. Johnson, a tribute to influential Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson. Over the years, the British blues legend has made no secret of his “religious” devotion for Johnson, an iconic figure who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest bluesman alive — but only recorded a few dozen timeless songs before dying mysteriously in 1938 at age 27. “Up until the time I was 25,” Clapton once wrote, “if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was, I wouldn’t talk to you.” Over the years, Slowhand has covered Johnson regularly and superbly — and, in the case of his 1968 version of Crossroads with Cream, definitively.

Clapton’s obsessive passion and respect for Johnson, sadly, is precisely what’s wrong with Me And Mr. Johnson, an album as genteel and pleasant as its name suggests. The stark, haunting power and gritty sensuality found in Johnson’s recordings is nowhere to be heard on these 14 tracks. Instead, Clapton and a band of studio-rat hired guns like Steve Gadd and Billy Preston present bloodless, gussied-up versions of masterpieces like Me And The Devil Blues, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, Love In Vain, 32-30 Blues and Hell Hound On My Trail. He skips Crossroads, natch — even Clapton knows he’s never going to top that. Maybe it’s that he’s too close to the material — after this time, he could probably play most of these songs in his sleep, which is pretty much what it sounds like he’s doing here. Far too well-crafted, respectful and wimpy for its own good, Me And Mr. Johnson is the sort of blues album your parents play while they sip white wine and do the New York Times Crossword on Sunday afternoon. In other words, it’s the sort of blues the 25-year-old Clapton wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to, never mind making. I suspect if the old Eric ran into his current incarnation, he wouldn’t speak to himself — though he might be tempted to slap him upside the head.