Clapton by himself doesn't invite this meditation, but the blitheness with which money drips from this production does. For the first session, he drives a silver sports car into a parking lot at a country house in Checkendon, England. A crane shot, of all things, pulls back to reveal the house is a country estate with a studio. In the studio, the camera pans around to introduce all the players, and it's hard not to count off millionaire after millionaire after would-be-millionaire-if-not-for-tax-problems.
One of the sessions was recorded with just Clapton and guitarist Doyle Bramhall II at 508 Park Ave. in Dallas, one of the two places Johnson recorded in his life. The building has been abandoned for years, but someone evidently paid enough to have it opened for the occasion. When Clapton and Bramhall climb the stairs, they notice the peeling paint and comment that they likely hadn't been painted since Johnson climbed them. When Johnson recorded there, though, it's not likely power cords, mic cables and sundry other production-related cables blocked doors open or that an oriental rug was put on the floor for him to perform on.
Commenting on that session, Clapton says, "The fact that we went there was the best thing we could do to get in touch with him, but, God, it's so far away." It wasn't as far from Johnson's life as Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, Calif. In a room with pumpkin walls and large windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Clapton performed a handful of Johnson songs solo while talking about what's difficult about playing them. There's no denying the challenge or anything Clapton says, but the possibility that he spent more money on the hotel room than Johnson made in his life colors the moment.
So what does all this mean? At this point, it's foolish to deny Clapton as a guitar player, and I'd be lying if I said there was nothing any good on this DVD (and CD); "Terraplane Blues," played at 508 Park Ave. is particularly well done, and everything else is tastefully and professionally performed. But is it the blues? Or is it a simulation of the blues, the blues as a musical form but with all the significance removed? Is significance a matter of belief and all that truly exists is the form? Do we choose to interpret the sounds we're hearing as an expression of personal pain when it's really nothing more than sound? In this case, it's hard not to feel like we're hearing the sound of money.
J. B. Hutto -- Stompin' at Mother Blues (Delmark): This collection of tracks by slide guitar wild man J. B. Hutto from two different sessions has the whiff of a "cleaning out the vaults" CD. The last third, recorded in 1972, is unnecessary and uninspired, including 45 seconds of studio chatter. Fortunately, the two-thirds recorded in 1966 at the Chicago club mentioned in the title have the heat and energy for which Hutto's famous. A disciple of Elmore James and friend of Hound Dog Taylor, his slide guitar playing had a lot of hair on it. He used a heavily distorted sound to create excitement and energy on tracks like "Evening Train" and "When I Get Drunk," and that effect is unintentionally matched here much of the time by his equally distorted vocals.
Corky Siegel -- Corky Siegel's Traveling Chamber Blues Show! (Alligator): The Siegel-Schwall Blues Band's Corky Siegel has recorded a CD with those most traditional of blues instruments, the cello and the tabla. Actually, he is working with a string quartet on this project, and the combination's very attractive. The results probably aren't really blues, or if they are, they qualify only via the sort of strained rationale that none but the most diehard fans will accept. Still, it doesn't sound like the classical musicians pulled the project that way; this sounds like the musical meeting ground they agreed on.
There's a good chance this show sounds remarkable live, since all the instruments have sonic qualities that rarely survive the recording process. Here, it sounds like great soundtrack music. Now if someone would only make a movie to go with it ...
Various Artists -- Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum): The news on this tribute to Mississippi blues legend Junior Kimbrough is new music by Iggy and the Stooges. They open and close the album with versions of "You Better Run," one moving at a pretty good clip, one hypnotically static in mid-tempo. Both would benefit from having Iggy's voice scrapping in the middle of the mix, but the tracks have a fair amount of power. They also gain a measure of dangerous energy for their obsessions with rape. After that, the revelation is that Kimbrough's style is so strong that those covering him end up adapting the songs more or less the same way. Perhaps it's the choice of talent -- many, underground garage blues folk like Thee Shams, Jim White, Jack Oblivian and the Black Keys -- but most tracks end up with a relentless riff over a simple, stomping beat and a haunted/strangled/half-competent singer over-dramatizing songs with titles such as "Burn in Hell," "Sad Days Lonely Nights" and "Done Got Old." Most songs, heard on their own, have some dark power, and there's more than a touch of psychedelia in the guitar murk. Heard together, the CD gets repetitive.