The Robert Johnson Songbook

Peter Green

Artisan Recordings, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/19/1998

Back in 1990, the digital processing of Robert Johnson's known recordings was the talk of the town. The box set The Complete Recordings (which we reviewed some time ago) sparked a new interest in Johnson and his music, and quickly became the leading candidate for "comeback of the year".

Now, in 1998, Peter Green is the leading candidate for comeback of the year - playing, of all things, the music of Robert Johnson. The Robert Johnson Songbook is a disc that proves that in Green's chest beats the heart of a bluesman - and for that, we should all be grateful.

Long after his glory days with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac, long after his dark days following a bad experience with acid and his rejection of his fame, people still know Green's name and his legacy. Until recently, Green was not ready to return to the limelight and begin reclaiming his musical heritage, but his last outing, Splinter Group, was his first step into reclaiming what was his. (I've not heard this particular disc yet, so I'll withhold any further comment on it.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Now, again working with the Splinter Group (and his old friend Nigel Watson), Green lovingly runs through 14 numbers from Johnson's repertoire (which only boasts 29 different titles) and tries to stay true to their original voice while adding touches of modern-day soul to them. With the backing vocals of Street Angels 98, this goal is easily achieved.

Green looks and sounds much older than his age, but in one sense, this almost gives him the perfect voice for the music he creates on The Robert Johnson Songbook. When Green sings songs like "32-20 Blues," "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and "Ramblin' On My Mind," you don't just hear a musician paying tribute to one of the greats in his field... you hear someone who's lived these words and bears the scars as proof.

The assembled band - Watson on guitar and vocals, bassist Neil Murray, pianist Roger Cotton and drummer Larry Tolfree - tends to keep their performances to a minimum, again complementing the basic songs and the mood that Johnson himself might have captured had he not died in 1938. Songs like "Me And The Devil Blues," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "When You Got A Good Friend" are all strong performances that make the music they create shine.

Even ex-Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers - whose voice has definitely changed since his glory days - lends a hand on "Sweet Home Chicago," though I would have much rather heard someone like Green take this number. The playing is good, but this one could be the only weak link on the whole album.

The Robert Johnson Songbook not only is a wonderful re-introduction of Green to the industry he rejected so many years ago, it also is a great primer for those who might not know who he is (I lump anyone who only knows Fleetwood Mac from the Buckingham-Nicks era in this category) and how important he was to British music in general in the '60s.

The only thing I honestly don't understand: My promotional copy of this album had a parental advisory sticker on it. Why?!? There is no language on this record, and the references to the devil are nothing like what you'd hear piled high on some new releases. Assuming the sticker wasn't put on by accident, this is a good reason why I think the stickering of albums is ludicrous.

The Robert Johnson Songbook lets people know with no uncertain doubt that Green has returned to reclaim his throne as a master of the blues. Here's hoping he sticks around for a while to defend it.

Rating: A-

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Artisan Recordings, and is used for informational purposes only.