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Warner Music presents
Sessions for Robert J (2004)

"I've always enjoyed listening to Robert Johnson more than anyone else."
- Eric Clapton

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: January 05, 2005

Stars: Eric Clapton
Other Stars: Doyle Bramhall II, Nathan East, Steve Gadd, Chris Stainton, Billy Preston
Director: Stephen Schible

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:36m:47s
Release Date: December 07, 2004
UPC: 075993862720
Genre: r-b

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+A-A B

DVD Review

Whether they're conscious of it or not, all rock musicians owe a huge debt to Robert Johnson, a blues man whose life is shrouded in mystery and whose recorded legacy is not voluminous. Johnson recorded 41 songs in all, in Texas, in 1936 and 1937, and the circumstances surrounding his death have become the stuff of legend—was he poisoned? Did he make a deal with the devil in exchange for his extraordinary music? (The Coens even include a thinly fictionalized version of Johnson in O Brother Where Art Thou?.) As a much younger man, Eric Clapton made it his business to investigate the roots of the music that he so loves, and now, as one of the lions of rock, he pays his respects to the master. This project is a followup of sorts to Me and Mr. Johnson, a 2004 Clapton album with covers of 14 Johnson songs; with this, Clapton has gotten to almost all of the tunes in the Johnson songbook.

The danger of a project like this is that it can turn out to be nothing but slavish imitation, a pale version of the original; that's the principal criticism that's been leveled against Clapton's first Johnson album, but I think that's a little unfair, as this undertaking is a whole lot more than something like Gus Van Sant's Psycho. This DVD consists principally of four studio sessions with Clapton and a handful of musicians ripping into Johnson's music; they were recorded between March and August of 2004. The first is in England, the last in Santa Monica; certainly the most notable is Session III, recorded in Dallas, on the site where Johnson himself laid down some tracks in 1937. If you've heard Johnson's recordings, you know that there's a sinuous, hissing, almost mystical quality to them; part of that is the technology of the time, certainly, but much of that has to do with the almost incantatory quality of Johnson's singing and playing. Clapton can't capture that—I don't know that anyone could, particularly while being the focus of a multi-camera shoot. And while Clapton's affinity for the music is clear, his covers are much cleaner and more slickly produced. (Also, I don't suppose that Johnson arrived at his own recording sessions in a sporty new silver Porsche, as does Clapton.)

But there's certainly some soulfulness to these sessions, especially in Clapton's growly, inspired singing, and his precise work on his guitar. He's well supported in various configurations by Doyle Bramhall II (guitar), Nathan East (bass), Steve Gadd (drums), Billy Preston (organ) and Chris Stainton (piano); only Bramhall is with Clapton for the trip to Dallas, on what's surely the best of the four sessions here. The music is intercut with interview footage with Clapton, discussing what Johnson means to him, and with studio chatter and the musicians between takes. Also dropped in are the meager bits of biographical information available about Johnson, along with a few cuts of him singing his own songs; it's fine to see Clapton paying homage, but if this DVD piques your interest, it's worth tracking down Johnson's own recordings, just as Clapton did in his youth.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The digital footage from the multi-camera shoot looks crystalline throughout, and has been well transferred; I remain partial to film, myself, but understand that using it can be burdensome and expensive, especially when you anticipate take after take, and what's being heard is more important than what's being seen.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: All three available audio tracks have been well engineered and transferred; which one you want to listen to probably depends on what your home theater setup is looking like. The 5.1 track is especially subtle and well mixed.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Music/Song Access with 34 cues and remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Four fold case
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying audio CD
Extras Review: The DVD comes in a foldout package along with an audio CD, featuring eleven of the best tracks culled from the documentary footage; it's well worth listening to, whether you want to pop it into the stereo or copy it onto your iPod. (It's in fact billed as an enhanced CD, but that just means that if you put it into your computer, you can link to official websites for Clapton or his label, or sign up for an e-mail newsletter. Wow.) The DVD also features a brief look (05m:03s) behind the scenes, showing Clapton with the documentary crew, going over set lists, and checking out all the very, very cool high-end audio and video equipment.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A respectful tribute to one of the all-time great blues men from one of his most talented and important acolytes. It may all be a little too polite, but musically there's plenty here to admire.


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