Blues singer-songwriter and guitarist laid down thirty songs for the then fledgling Columbia label between 1927 and 1930 and in the process created blues musical history. It is this legacy that is the cause of celebration on this tribute by a wide-ranging cast of musicians, all of whom have felt compelled to pay homage. Such is Johnson’s stature among musicians that his songs have previously been covered by no less than Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Led Zepplin.
Lucinda Williams shines on the roster of singers contributing and this is not so much a revelation as a re-affirmation of what she does best and a return to her earliest folk-blues recordings. Williams excels on the title track with an echo-induced voice and instrumentation that enters gradually. The time is surely ripe for an entire album of recordings in this vein from the singer and she follows this up with a rousing take on ‘It’s nobody’s fault but mine’ with wailing vocals that conjure up a dervish-like trance. The unbridled enthusiasm is most certainly infectious and there is fine accompaniment from slide guitar and a thumping drum beat. In a decidedly rootsier vein, this writer immediately took to the old-time sound of Luther Dickinson who leads on vocals and slide guitar with the Rising Star fife and drum band on the catchiest of melodies, interpreting, ‘Bye and bye. I’m gonna see the King’. A fine duet of distinction is to be found on ‘Keep your lamp trimmed and burning’ from Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, arguably contemporary blues’ finest current pairing. Tedeschi’s smoky sounding vocals and wonderful guitar accompaniment keeps this reading of the song constantly on edge and is all the more enjoyable for it.
Arguably, the most anticipated of the interpretations are the two offerings by Tom Waits and while he warbles somewhat incoherently through the opener, ‘Soul of a man’, the second song, ‘John the Revelator’, finds him in more comfortable territory and his idiosyncratic delivery works rather well. For some authentic gospel hues, the Blind Boys of Alabama take some beating and the heart warming lyrics and smooth harmonies combine to stunning effect on, ‘Mother’s children have a hard time’. Not everything is as successful. The throaty vocals of the Cowboy Junkies seem a little out-of-place whereas the contemporary beats and breathy vocals of Sinead O’Connor place the classic repertoire in a twenty-first century setting.
Exemplary sleeve notes and packaging that convey something of the flavour of the original masterpieces.