Various Artists
Blues Power: The Songs of Eric Clapton
House of Blues 9565A

Most so-called tribute albums collect diverse artists to mine the honoree’s material in order to present a different, more personalized perspective. But the all-star line-up on Blues Power: The Songs of Eric Clapton (part of the This Ain’t No Tribute series from House of Blues Records) has the problematic task of lifting Clapton’s blues-rock inventions out of their original context and transforming them into something more closely related to the blues tradition, with predictably mixed results.

Koko Taylor’s husky delivery of “Blues Power” sounds right at home testifying to the deep-down stuff, and Joe Louis Walker and James Cotton fairly scrape their way through the otherwise forgettable “Roll It Over,” bringing a sting to the tune that reminds you why blues artists wince so much. Both are gems.

Then there’s Honeyboy Edwards’ emotional read of “Crossroads,” the Cream favorite adapted for rock trio from Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” The liner notes remind us that the 84-year-old Edwards actually played the original with Robert Johnson in 1937, and this version is likely to make you believe it. Haunted, twisted, something Johnson himself would recognize, and just this side of devastating.

Bo Diddley, timeless in his own way, restates his own “Before You Accuse Me” with no hint of the bittersweet irony involved in playing his own composition on a tribute to someone else. Buddy Guy sounds right at home with “Strange Brew,” and Eric Gales and the outstanding young slide player Derek Trucks bring it home with a capable and touching version of “Layla,” although they never manage to approach the soul-scratching desperation of the original.

But Otis Clay’s pallid rendition of “Wonderful Tonight,” arguably one of Clapton’s most precious pop ballads, lacks bite and push, and even the outstanding soul singer’s creamy vocals can’t breathe anything like real life into it. More or less the less the same happens with “Lay Down Sally,” somewhat flatly delivered by Carl Weathersby with no sign of the J.J. Cale-inspired shuffle that made the song fun in the first place. And Ann Peebles’ gospelish offering of “Tears in Heaven” is nice enough but somehow sounds painfully out of place.

This is a wildly uneven enterprise. When it hits the nail square, it offers up performances and passions that humble Clapton’s originals, but when it tries to appeal to Clapton’s pop constituency, it seems pointless and gratuitous.

Clapton’s real legacy was keeping the soul and stylings of blues alive decades after rock drifted away from them, and for that these artists rightfully give the man his due. But that’s a hard thing to build an album around, and I wonder if the “No Tribute” disclaimer on the front was added after someone listened to it all the way through.

David Kirby

©1999 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA