various artists,
Blues Power: Songs of Eric Clapton
(House of Blues, 1999)

Here's a recent entry in the House of Blues' This Ain't No Tribute series of, uh, tribute albums to certain blues (and non-blues) players. It was only a matter of time before the Great God Clapton "non-tribute" came due, especially since the series has so far limited itself to white musicians: Joplin, the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Led Zeppelin -- fine artists all, but one starts to wonder where the tributes are to Robert Johnson, Son House and Howlin' Wolf.

Yeah, I know, these are just blues interpretations, and they do spotlight black artists. And what a great contingent of them are on this album: Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards and more. Hopefully these cuts will lead Clapton fans and other listeners to these artists' own great records. But enough pontificating -- what about the music here?

It consistently cooks. Even the pop-oriented "Wonderful Tonight" gets a great, soulful reading from Otis Clay, with a glorious, gospel-tinged backup chorus. I don't think Koko Taylor has ever cut a bad track in her life, and her version of "Blues Power" is unforgettably, well, powerful! This lady could make "Tea For Two" sound like it was born and bred in a smoky Chicago blues club. Carl Weathersby does "Lay Down Sally" proud, giving it a smooth, slow, funky feel, with some laid-back yet sizzling guitar solos.

"Strange Brew" is one of those problem songs, as there's really not much to it, but Buddy Guy makes the most of it, just as he has made it a staple of his live act for years. Chess blues legend Bo Diddley gives his own 12-bar classic, "Before You Accuse Me," a rollicking and joyful run-through, while Joe Louis Walker's absolutely perfect blues/gospel voice, backed up by James Cotton's unparalleled harp work, makes much of "Roll It Over."

I'd love to hear Otis Rush do this entire album, but his single cut of "Old Love" will have to do. As always, Rush is a real standout. Blues piano legend Pinetop Perkins is fortunately given one of the classic 12-bars to deal with, and does a great job with "Too Bad." Perkins could probably do a song like this in his sleep, but he sounds wide awake, and much younger than his 85 years. Though "Tears in Heaven" doesn't have a blues structure, it certainly has a blues feel, and Ann Peebles contributes a lovely and emotional reading. "Layla" may arguably be Clapton's best known tune, and it's hard to imagine anyone but Derek and the Dominos doing it. Eric Gales gives it a good shot, but it's too close to the original to be very distinctive.

Oddly enough (or perhaps not so odd), the highlights of the album are the two songs that Clapton didn't write, but only recorded, Bo Diddley's "Before You Accuse Me" and Robert Johnson's classic "Crossroads," performed here by Honeyboy Edwards with James Cotton. Here is the only real taste of the Delta on the entire album, a sound that takes us back instantly to where the blues began, so that we're sitting on a ramshackle porch on a hot, dusty day, while one man plays guitar and another wails on harmonica, and we hear the blues straight and unadorned, raw and acoustic. It's almost startling in the context of the rest of this album, and a suitable reminder of what the blues is really all about.

To sum up, if you're into Clapton, you should get this CD to hear his blues done in a more gritty and authentic style. If you think Clapton is merely a blues pretender, get it to hear what the real thing sounds like. Frankly, you can't lose either way.

[ by Chet Williamson ]