Friday, April 17, 2009

Down to the Crossroads: Clapton Plays Dem Ol’ Blues

Eric Clapton: Sessions For Robert J
Wea/Elektra Entertainment // 2004 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening shot…
Guitar legend Eric Clapton pays tribute to his idol, bluesman Robert Johnson.

What’s Goin’ Down?
Part jam session, part musical history lesson, this impressive DVD/CD combo features Clapton and a tight backing band performing the greatest blues laments by Robert Johnson, who died in 1938 under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27. Some of his biographers believe he was poisoned; others say he was stabbed by a jealous husband and died days later. But they sing in unison on one score: Johnson was the most influential musician who ever sang the blues and a mind-bending genius on acoustic guitar. Clapton, of course, is up to the challenge in this excellent homage.

Sessions for Robert J is an essential testament by a virtuoso guitarist honoring his roots while acknowledging Johnson’s influence on at least four generations of rock and blues musicians.

Filmed during concert rehearsals in London and Dallas, the DVD presents an intimate look at a laid-back Clapton, gigging with blues musicians in a studio setting—free from the pressures of a concert performance and the inevitable need to strut like a rock star before an audience. Clapton seems totally immersed in the music, some of which was also recorded in Dallas in the warehouse and a now-abandoned hotel where Johnson cut his final recordings in 1937.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Divided into four sessions, the first half of the DVD features Clapton and a backing quintet rehearsing songs for their 2004 tribute tour. Fans will smile to see longtime Clapton associates Nathan East thumping four strings and Steve Gadd pounding the drums. Legendary session man Billy Preston shows up to lay his hands on the mighty Hammond organ, and the keys are soon smokin’ (Preston, who worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, from Little Richard to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and who died in June 2006, is sorely missed). The second half of the disc is all acoustic with Clapton performing solo and dueling with guitarist Doyle Bramhall II.

Songs are interspersed with Clapton’s ruminations on Johnson, the hardships of his life, and the enduring impact of his legacy. This is a great bonus to a fabulous program, as it is fascinating to hear a genius like Clapton speak in awe of a musician who died in relative obscurity eight years before the British rocker was born.

Video and audio are superb, affording a totally absorbing musical experience.

The accompanying audio CD is a welcome bonus, containing 11 tracks of studio-polished songs from the DVD.

Set list:
• Kind-Hearted Woman Blues
• They’re Red Hot
• Hell Hound on My Trail
• Sweet Home Chicago
• When You Got a Good Friend
• Milkcow’s Calf Blues
• If I Had Possession over Judgment Day
• Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
• Terraplane Blues
• Hell Hound on My Trail
• Me and the Devil Blues
• From Four until Late
• Love in Vain
• Ramblin’ on My Mind
• Stones in My Passway
• Love in Vain (acoustic)

Bonus tracks:

• Little Queen of Spades
• Traveling Riverside Blues

This is a fine R&B package lovingly produced and performed by one of the greatest guitarists—alive or otherwise. The DVD shimmers on home theater; the CD makes a worthy travel companion when wanderlust takes us farther on up the road.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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