Eric Clapton's 21st century output has been erratic, but his best efforts have come from root-tending: his latter-day B.B. King collaboration Riding With The King, the mid-00's Cream reunion and Robert Johnson tribute, the late '00s tour with Blind Faith kin Steve Winwood, the 2014 J.J. Cale homage. Clapton's latest follows suit: a revival meeting with classic rock swami Glyn Johns, producer of his 1977 hit Slowhand, a set of swampy blues and well-chosen covers that finds fresh angles on the guitarist's perennial obsessions.
"Alabama Woman Blues" makes that clear straightaway, a reading of Leroy Carr's 1930 recording that swaps Carr's piano-and-acoustic guitar arrangement for a full-on band, with Louisiana-tinged accordion and Clapton's raw electric tracing the Great Migration of Chicago Blues via less-travelled roads. Snarling, stabbing, and strutting, the sound is less laid back than just got laid, a welcome change from the supperclub blues and beachcomber reggae tones of 2013's apparent retirement postcard, Old Sock.
Credit Clapton's long relationship with Johns, which had a rocky start – working on the Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert project in 1973, when the guitarist was fucked up on heroin, Johns essentially quit in frustration. They later reunited, and in the years since Tom Dowd produced Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, noone has balanced the rough and smooth of Clapton's music as well. See Skip James' "Cypress Grove" here, the accordion heaving like a fat man gone AWOL while Clapton hollers after it, guitar slithering like an Everglades highway python. Robert Johnson's "Stones In My Passway" goes to church with handclaps, squeezebox, and wicked slide; in context, it might be interpreted as the funkiest blues about kidney problems ever. There's some lightweight material here (the vocal duet "Catch The Blues"), but Clapton's sentimental tendencies can be deployed effectively, too; the 1930's parlor ballad "Little Man, You've Had A Busy Day," taken at a playful clip, is less cloying than touching.
Covers are the clear highlights, and Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" is the most surprising – it seems to imagine the skeletal John Wesley Harding original as a Basement Tapes session with The Band, who inspired Clapton to trade his psychedelic frocks for darker colors way back when. You hear those tones, deep and cutting, on Clapton's own "Spiral," a smoldering knock-off in which the singer declares "I'm just playing this song… you don't know how much it means to have this music in me." A shitload, clearly, and for the first time in a while, it sounds like it.