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Me and Mr. Johnson
ERIC CLAPTON
Reprise
As an artist, Eric Clapton is aging gracefully. The 59-year-old former Guitar God refuses to chase after blockbuster albums, opting instead to do projects he's passionate about, or simply make music he feels like. His latest release is a tribute to his primary musical inspiration, the mythic bluesman Robert Johnson, who died in 1938 (poisoned at age 27 by a jealous man) after writing and performing some of the most accomplished songs in the Delta blues canon.

Instead of trying to re-create Johnson's solo-acoustic originals in all their spooky glory, the white, English-bred Clapton stuck closer to his own blues milieu: He recorded 14 of Johnson's songs with his regular rhythm section — drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Nathan East — along with keyboardist Billy Preston, harmonica man Jerry Portnoy, and guitarists Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II.

The result is music that sounds visceral, off-the-cuff and, relatively speaking, raw. The band chomps on the shuffles, struts, boogies and slow blues — at times producing a sludgey stomp ("Hell Hound on My Trail," "Milkcow's Calf Blues," "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day"); at other times he allows the music to breathe more by emphasizing acoustic instruments ("Me and the Devil Blues," "Come on in My Kitchen," "Last Fair Deal Gone Down").

Clapton sings Johnson's vaunted lyrics with utmost commitment, although he sounds less than convincing when uttering some of the more misogynistic lines ("Take my 32-20 now and/ Cut her half in two"). Although he tosses in well-timed rasps and occasional melisma, he doesn't manufacture overtly bluesy performances, choosing instead to stay within himself.

Perhaps because of his reverence for the Johnson material, and desire to showcase the songs, Clapton's guitar playing is mostly circumspect. The breaks are short, many played with a slide (and seeing as that Clapton has never played much slide, some of the solos could've been performed by the other guitarists). His decision to not turn Me and Mr. Johnson into a guitar showcase is admirable, but, nevertheless, some more six-string fire would have given the disc some welcome juice. Eric Clapton is indeed an able singer, but guitar wizardry is still his main calling card. 1/2—ERIC SNIDER

Live 1964
BOB DYLAN
Columbia/Legacy
We all know Bob Dylan the mumbling grump, the uneven performer This concert, taped at New York's Philharmonic Hall on Halloween night, 1964, finds Dylan, on acoustic guitar and harmonica, in an ebullient, even whimsical mood. He was already well established in leftie circles, but had begun to resist being pigeonholed a protest singer. His newer songs turned inward, presenting more personal narratives. The two-disc Live 1964, the sixth volume in Dylan's Bootleg Series, is also uneven, but in a different way. Far from being dour and remote, his mood pushed toward silliness, which undercuts some of the serious import of his songs. He even giggles amid a few of his more searing lines. Dylan speaks to the reverent crowd between virtually every tune, punctuating his comments with little self-conscious chuckles. He banters with audience members, and is often quite funny. Despite the incongruity between Dylan's loopy demeanor — had he burned a little herb, drank a bit too much Beaujolais? — and the weight of the material, the narratives come through most of the time. He hits full stride on "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," when he spits out the lyrics with righteous indignation, stretching the phrases to chilling effect. The collection's low point comes near the end, when Joan Baez joins Dylan for a handful of songs. They're clearly out of sync — the timbre of their voice does not mesh well — and so they end up sort of joking their way through it. Another problem: Most of Dylan's harmonica playing is shrill and off-key; at times it's excruciating. Inconsistent though it is, however, Live 1964 captures a Bob Dylan that's long been a distant memory.—ERIC SNIDER

Soul Gravy
CROSS CANADIAN RAGWEED
Universal South
At first listen, this country-rock quartet's major-label debut seems to provide just enough distorted vintage guitar tones, harmonious vocal drawl and clever trailer-life lyrical couplets to get over. It's both slicker and more upbeat than your average alt-country release, highly polished and ready to take on contemporary C&W radio's tired cliches. Hell, there are even a couple of songs — particularly the mid-tempo "Lonely Girl" and maudlin, acoustic-driven "Sick and Tired" — that could qualify as great. Further run-throughs, however, reveal the forced, by-the-numbers energy and creeping blandness inherent in a majority of the tracks. Worse, the formulaic elements that characterize CMT's current contrived stars begin to show through; Soul Gravy starts to sound less like a more accessible take on y'allternative, and more like it's coming from the other direction — predictable pop-country pap dressed up in a real-band format and presented as "edgy." After awhile, not even the excellent, hidden cover of Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" is worth a trip through the listed closing track. To give 'em credit, at least Cross Canadian Ragweed write their own material. The problem is that, far too often, Soul Gravy sounds like they're writing it in strict adherence to the contemporary-country stylebook, then just cranking things up a bit. 1/2—Scott Harrell

Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein
BILL CHARLAP
Blue Note
Leonard Bernstein music has never been high on the must-play list for jazz musicians. Perhaps it's because his rep as a classical composer has held him at bay. Hell, maybe songs from his musicals are difficult or don't work well as launch-points for improvisation. The latter is highly unlikely, though, and that's proven with one listen to Bill Charlap's loving interpretations of Bernstein's pop canon. Somewhere is a straight piano-trio album (with Kenny Washington on drums and Peter Washington on bass), beautifully played through and through, with just enough twists and turns and little jolts to raise it well above the realm of cliches. Charlap, son of late Broadway composer Moose Charlap, has a clear affinity for these songs, and plays them with their lyrical content in mind, as well as melody, harmony and rhythm. The program ranges from the sprightly Latin bounce of "America" to the frenetic bop of "Jump" (showcasing a brief, blazing solo) to an array of tenderly rendered ballads: a solo version of "Somewhere," a gorgeously elegant "Lonely Town." When it comes to mainstream, non-experimental jazz piano, it doesn't get much better than Somewhere. —ERIC SNIDER

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