Robert Johnson, blues pioneer and legend, would turn 100 next month if he were still alive. In celebration of his centennial, his all-too-brief catalog-- 29 master takes and 13 alternates-- has been reissued.
As I'm sure a lot of you reading this already have these recordings in some form or another, I'm going to start by talking about the presentation of this material. Put simply-- this set is a revelation of sound-- it's remarkable, both the 1990 collection (Complete Recordings) and the later reissues of King of Delta Blues Singers all have that "pre-World War II reissue sound". Many of you know what I mean, scratches, pops, microphone hiss, etc. It lends a certain charm to the music, but it can certainly change the listening experience. This recording is remarkably free of that-- crip, clean, clear, no artifacts of age or old media. It's really amazing, I've never heard anything from this era that sounds like this, it has my salivating at the potential for remastering other pre-WWII music and it really brings Johnson to life-- with such clarity, both his singing and guitar playing leap off the recordings.
And really, that brings me back to the recordings, a true treasure of their era, Robert Johnson was a powerfully talented man. Generally recognized for his guitar playing (rumor has it he sold his soul to the Devil to attain such mastery), Johnson was also a singer of fierce power, channeling deep and powerful emotions and demonstrating excellent flexibility in his voice. Accompanying himself on guitar, Johnson demonstrates remarkable technique, instantly recognizable as his own and never really replicated by anyone else. I think it was best summed up by Keith Richards, who famously asked when hearing Johsnon, "who is the other guy playing with him?"
The songs themselves have been covered and re-covered so many times, in many ways they're instantly familiar to us. To hear Johnson perform though is often a revelation-- he can bring forth such emotions seemingly at will, haunted fear ("Hellhound on My Trail"), anxiety ("Ramblin' On My Mind") and ecstacy ("They're Red Hot"). But for me, when he's at his best is when there's almost an acceptance of a dark resolution-- "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Cross Road Blues" come immediately to mind. It's something I've never quite heard in anyone else's music, and certainly the many, many covers of the latter are simply lacking in comparison.
The bottom line is, these recordings are essential parts of music history, it's hard to overstate this, and should be investigated by virtually any serious music fan. For those who have previous issues of these recordings, the sonic upgrade here is to my ears worth the investment. Highly recommended.