The blues are the only style of music that are also a state of being. Listen to blues pioneers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Muddy Waters and you might presume that this state has something to do with being short on cash and long on melanin, but Johnny Cash, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Charlie Musselwhite proved that you don't have to be poor and black to play the blues; you just have to be soulful and expressive.
So you shouldn't dismiss the new blues cover albums by Eric Clapton and Aerosmith simply because both acts are richer, whiter and scarier to look at than Dick Cheney. Clapton's blues credentials are impeccable; he first played with Sonny Boy Williamson in 1963, and his worship of Delta legends Buddy Guy and B.B. King has been reciprocated over the years, with both respectfully calling on him as a producer and collaborator. The spandexed sybarites in Aerosmith have never been much for tradition, which makes their blues obsession more subversive and dynamic; on the surface they churn out big dumb power ballads, but Joe Perry's wailing guitar lines and Steven Tyler's lyrics ("I was cryin' when I met you/ Now I'm tryin' to forget you") would have Leadbelly nodding in recognition.
Clapton and Aerosmith both know their blues, but playing blues classics convincingly is another matter. Clapton sets the bigger challenge for himself on Me and Mr. Johnson by covering 14 tracks by Robert Johnson, the most miserable Mississippian to ever pick a guitar. Legend has it that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his skills. When Lucifer collected, Johnson was 27 and had just 29 recordings to his name. Clapton says those recordings (which are just Johnson and his Gibson L-1, no accompaniment) are the finest music ever made, which leads to a conceptual dilemma: if Clapton mimics Johnson's superior minimalism, he's added nothing; if he tinkers, he risks ruining perfection. He's damned both ways.
Johnson would have appreciated the double bind, but it's hard to guess what he'd make of Me and Mr. Johnson. Clapton adds a full band and as much as two minutes in length to some of Johnson's songs (all of which were under three minutes to fit the recording limit of 78s). The group creates some smooth grooves, and the guitar playing is predictably spectacular, but in the process of stretching the songs Clapton strips them of their intensity. Billy Preston's bouncy keyboards make 32-20 Blues sound like a Country Bear Jamboree performance of Chopin's Funeral March, while the snare hits and harmonica clichés on Traveling Riverside Blues sound like Johnson channeled through a Michelob ad. Clapton's vocals don't help matters. You can tell he's ecstatic to be covering his idol, but his exuberance increases the disconnection between the music and the material. Johnson was one dark dude; when he sang "There's a hellhound on my trail" you believed him. When Clapton sings the same line you wonder if the hound's name is Patches. Me and Mr. Johnson never feels urgent. The only genuine emotion Clapton musters is reverence.
Aerosmith has never revered anything but its own double entendres, which gives it a distinct creative advantage when dipping into the past. Honkin' on Bobo isn't burdened by respect or ambition, it's just a bunch of ragged blues covers (and one bluesy original) seemingly selected with the aid of a dartboard. (Aretha Franklin? Fleetwood Mac?) There are lots of potential quibbles like, for instance, that Aerosmith playing roadhouse blues sounds a lot like ZZ Top playing rock 'n' roll but other than a disastrously sincere take on Jesus Is on the Main Line, Honkin' on Bobo is full of clamorous charm.
Perry isn't the guitarist that Clapton is, but his picking has a slutty vocal quality that's perfect for Bo Diddley's Road Runner and Muddy Waters' I'm Ready. It also plays well off of Tyler's singing, which increasingly sounds less human and more like a rogue trumpet. Tyler can still hit all the notes, often at the same time, and his explosive incomprehensibility on Big Joe Williams' Baby, Please Don't Go will leave you laughing in a good way. It's unclear exactly what Tyler is feeling (though it might be in his pants) but he's definitely feeling something, and Honkin' on Bobo is a reminder that the blues don't need to be profound, they just need to be profoundly felt.