Of the many reasons why middle-class white boys such as Eric Clapton and Aerosmith flocked to the music of older, impoverished black men in the 1960s and early 1970s, here is one of the best: The great bluesmen were also great pop songwriters. Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Mississippi Fred McDowell, to name just three, told real-life stories in hot, tight packages of poetic vernacular and hard-won joy. Clapton and Aerosmith take different routes back to blues school on these covers albums, but they do so with mutual fealty and honest delight.
Johnson has been Clapton’s steady rollin’ muse since 1966, when he cut Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind” with John Mayall. That song is not among the fourteen Clapton covers on his all-Johnson program; nor is “Crossroads,” which he turned into high-speed-guitar spectacle with Cream. In fact, Clapton keeps his solos in “When You Got a Good Friend” and “Little Queen of Spades” to a blistering chorus or two, to better show off the dirty-rubber swing of his longtime road-and-studio band. Clapton pays broad tribute to Johnson as a composer and public-domain synthesist, spicing the sorrow of “Love in Vain” with the carnal sport of “They’re Red Hot.” But he recalls his own passage through darkness in these songs, too. When he finds Satan on his doorstep in “Me and the Devil Blues,” you can hear in Clapton’s deep, scarred howl that he is confronting an old acquaintance.
Aerosmith don’t have much time for pain on Honkin’ on Bobo. The songs are mostly about gettin’ some, then gettin’ outta there — Dixon’s “I’m Ready,” Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” — and the attack is heavy Sixties shindig: snarling guitars, thunderclap drumming, Steven Tyler’s 3-D snake hiss and widescreen yowl. Bobo is really a combined tribute: to the originators of the blues’ core repertoire and the explosive, electric inventions of 1960s British bands such as the Yardbirds, Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac. Aerosmith’s devil’s-army gallop through “Baby Please Don’t Go” is a lunatic escalation of Them’s 1965 cover of the Big Joe Williams song. There is a tightness to this mania; Bobo is a celebratory attack on the canon, not a violation of it. And there are moments of exotic restraint, such as the misty-mountain noir of Perry’s hurdy-gurdy in McDowell’s “Back Back Train.” But Aerosmith’s specialty is jubilant overkill, and Bobo is a huge, affectionate spoonful. You want scholarship and propriety? You’re barking at the wrong doghouse.