Different Moods of Indigo

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The blues are the only style of music that is 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 miserable 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 acknowledged over the years by both in their use of 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.

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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 ever to strum a guitar. When he died, Johnson was 27 and had only 29 songs 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 has 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. The guitar playing is predictably spectacular, but in stretching the songs Clapton strips them of their intensity. His vocals don't help matters. 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. 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 dart board (Aretha Franklin? Fleetwood Mac?), 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 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.