Various Artists

Hellhound on My Trail: Songs of Robert Johnson

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Not the first compilation of bluesmen (and one woman) interpreting the limited but radically influential work of Robert Johnson, and almost certainly not the last, this 2001 entry is one of the more substantial efforts in the lineage. Instead of refashioning these classics in unique arrangements, the compilers have stripped the artists and songs down to their unplugged roots. Most perform solo or with another musician. Drums are all but nonexistent, and a sublime organ augments another, but the rest wend their way with the basics of guitar, voice, and harp, as well as a touch of Pinetop Perkins' tinkling piano. What results is an honest, unpretentious, and often thrilling tribute to Johnson by an eclectic array of young and established blues journeymen. As for the old-timers, you don't get any more authentic than Robert Lockwood Jr. and David "Honeyboy" Edwards, both of whom actually played with the legendary Johnson, and their presence instills a legitimate authenticity to the project. Edwards sounds weak but inspired on "Traveling Riverside Blues," and Chicago harp master Carey Bell adds sizzle to Lockwood Jr.'s "Steady Rollin' Man." Muddy Waters' sidemen Bob Margolin and Pinetop Perkins alternate on vocals for two sparkling tracks, and the always dependable Taj Mahal takes on the daunting "Crossroads" with typical aplomb. The album's most radical pairing is guitarist/vocalist Eric Gales, who plays with subtle Hammond B-3 organ accompaniment, offering a changeup from the traditional approach. Susan Tedeschi, the disc's only woman, howls with righteous passion as Derek Trucks turns in a rare unplugged performance on one of two versions of "Walking Blues." Only pop-rocker Robert Palmer seems out of place on the roster, but his version of "Milkcow's Calf Blues" is remarkably faithful to the original and free of the flashy glitz that mars his own work. He even overdubs himself on low-key tuba, adding a distinctive perspective to the track. Elsewhere Joe Louis Walker, Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, and Lucky Peterson represent the youngsters. All acquit themselves with grace and intensity on an album that consistently remains true to the spirit of this most classic of blues music. Few tributes are this honestly constructed and pay respect so gracefully to one of the blues' most beloved and cherished catalogs.

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