Vocals weaken tribute

Most people who've enjoyed the extensive work of Eric Clapton know the story of how the legendary British guitarist earned one of the more difficult nicknames to live up to.

Back in mid-1960s London, when Clapton was a member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, a rabid fan scrawled the words "Clapton is God" on a subway station wall. The rest, as they say, is history.

Even deities have their heroes, though, Clapton's being almost-mythic 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson.

On his latest album, Me and Mr. Johnson, Slowhand pays loving tribute to the man he considers to be the most influential upon his career and one of the most important guitarists in rock history. He tackles 14 of the 29 songs Johnson recorded during his all-too-brief career (Johnson, known for his womanizing, died at 26 after being poisoned by a jealous husband), and does so with more help than Johnson — who recorded with nothing more than his guitar — could have ever imagined.

To record his tribute, Clapton — who owes Johnson for his Cream hit "Crossroads" — went out and got some of the best studio musicians money could buy. Longtime Clapton favorites Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II pick up the slack on Johnson's tricky guitar parts, while Billy Preston (organ and piano), Jerry Portnoy (harmonica), Nathan East (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums) provide the album's solid foundation.

For all the sparseness on Johnson's recordings, Me and Mr. Johnson is at its finest when Clapton and the band get a chance to stretch out and showcase their considerable chops. The cheerful swing of "They're Red Hot," a song punctuated by Clapton's fun vocal performance and solos from Preston, Portnoy and Bramhall that could have torn the roof off a 1930s juke joint, stands as a prime example of exactly what this all-star outfit can deliver.

Other standout cuts, "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" are clinics in what driving blues numbers should sound like.

It's on the slower to mid-tempo tracks, the majority of Me and Mr. Johnson, where the album's cracks become noticeable. Other than on the amped-up rendition of "Milkcow's Calf Blues," Clapton's creative juices seem stymied as he tries to stay true to Johnson's stripped-down sound. Though he and the band were probably keen on not toying around too much with a good thing — and should be commended for their respect for Johnson's phrasings — doing so caused them to exercise more restraint than necessary.

Also, Clapton himself rarely turns it on for his own solos, giving more ammo to critics who feel the star has been coasting on mere reputation in recent years.

It might be sacrilegious to suggest that Clapton turns out to be Me and Mr. Johnson's weak link, but that's the case on the slower tracks. Never known for having the best blues voice, Clapton's smooth crooning suffers from a simple lack of energy. On many tracks, including album-opener "When You Got A Good Friend," Clapton sounds downright bored — something that doesn't translate well when trying to draw in an audience.

Still, this isn't a bad blues album, and the million or so Clapton fanatics and blues diehards who will probably pick this one up could do a lot worse for their money. But knowing that Clapton's intention was to bring some attention to his hero, skipping the middleman and picking up the esteemed Mr. Johnson's The Complete Recordings might just be the better investment.

Grade: BC