It’s difficult to accept the idea that such a broad and storied sound as rock n’ roll can be traced back to a single point in history but, in many ways, that case is easily made when one considers the influence of Robert Johnson. As everyone knows, Johnson became the king of the Delta Blues singers and the auteur who would inform the work of names including The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Cream and Led Zeppelin among others when rock really began to get its enduring foothold in pop culture in the Sixties.
That manner of influence is an impressive statement on its own, but the image and legacy of Johnson – the man who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the ability to play the blues better than any man alive – endured well beyond the early years of that influence though; innumerable artists (including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gun Club, Fleetwood Mac, Lucinda Williams, The White Stripes, Keb Mo, John Mayer and more) have lined up to pay the guitarist tribute in the decades since, to say nothing of the younger players who are just beginning to learn and pick up a couple of Johnson’s classic I-IV-V patterns for a start.
It is in the spirit of that re-examination that Legacy/Columbia/Sony Music released the Robert Johnson Centennial Collection 2CD set in celebration of the guitarist’s hundredth birthday in 2011 with a meticulously remastered presentation of all forty-two tracks that Johnson recorded between the only two recording sessions he ever sat down for (sixteen tracks were recorded in a three-day session in 1936 while the remaining twenty-six – some of which were second takes from the original session – were recorded at the second session in 1937), but now the label has gone that ever-so-important step further, mastered the set for vinyl and released a numbered, limited edition 3LP version of the Centennial Collection for Record Store Day 2017.
Now, there’s no possible way to deny that the 2CD release of Centennial Collection isn’t without its charms; if the CD collection is the thing which is within one’s means, that is the obvious way to go because it is absolutely essential listening. If, however, one has the means to purchase (as well as the ability to find) one of these new 3LP sets, there is no way to overstate the quality of this vinyl. As soon as the needle of a listener’s record player finds its way home on any of this set’s six sides, listeners will be astounded by and quickly lost within the warmth of the field recording quality of this set, as well as the clarity of it; care has been taken to preserve the obvious age of the recordings [read: they tinny sound of the recording doesn’t sound like it could have been captured yesterday –ed], but they’re presented here as clearly and flawlessly as possible. It is that presentation which proves to be point one of the reason why this listening experience is so engrossing.
The clarity of the recordings on this set is one thing, but it would be nothing were it not for the recordings themselves. As a listener trips his or her way through this 3LP set, they may find themselves overcome by what they find as familiar tracks like “Malted Milk,” (which Clapton covered on his Unplugged performance) “They’re Red Hot” (which was later covered by the Chili Peppers), “Traveling Riverside Blues” (later covered by Led Zeppelin) and “Love In Vain” (which was covered by The Rolling Stones) bleed out with decidedly different flavors from the versions that most everyone knows.
That air of familiarity is exciting, but helps to bring fresh interest to songs like “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “Stones In My Passway,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” the apocalyptic (particularly if you want hold credence to the ‘Sold his soul to the devil’ story) “Hell Hound On My Trail” and “Kindhearted Woman Blues.” Not only that, the songs which feature more than one appearance on this set show just how much they were continuing to develop after the tape rolled on them the first time; the sessions were recorded a year apart, after all, and show refined development from one take to the next because each was getting played regularly as the guitarist toured to myriad new rooms around the United States. As a result, the songs firm up from take-to-take here, and listeners really get the sense that they’re watching history develop right before their ears.
And after they’ve gone front-to-back with all six sides of this Centennial Collection (and, after they begin the journey, they’ll almost immediately decide to make that time commitment for the set – it is that prepossessing), no listener will be able to deny that they’ll have felt as though they’ve witnessed a historical moment develop before their eyes. After listening, they’ll leave feeling as though they have an understanding of where so much of the rock n’ roll they love has come from and (even better) both how and why as well. Needless to say, Centennial Collection has an intrinsically inspiring quality about it in that regard; listeners will come away with a new understanding, but they may also come away with a fresh desire to revisit Johnson’s crossroads and write their own new chapter from it. Might this century-old music inspire another rock renaissance? It could happen….
The 3LP Record Store Day Edition of Robert Johnson’s Centennial Collection is out now in a pressing limited to 2500 numbered copies. Get down to your favorite independent record store now to try and find a copy!