Robert Johnson – Centennial Collection (album review)

Robert Johnson – The Centennial Collection – The Complete Recordings (Sony Legacy) CD review

New technology brings out the true Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is one of the most important figures in all of recorded music.  The tales of his brief life and mysterious death are enough to draw most people in, but his music is even more powerful.  His voice, capable of falsetto wailing and eerie plain-talking, along with his fluid fretwork, truly make his songs feel “other-worldly.”  The Centennial Collection – The Complete Recordings has been issued to celebrate the 100 anniversary of Johnson’s birth.

These same recordings have been issued many times before.  If the title of this set sounds familiar, it’s shared by the 2-CD box set The Complete Recordings, which sold over a half a million copies back in 1990.  But, this new collection has some significant improvements, the biggest being the sound quality. The tracks on the 1990 version are muffled and tinny – it’s as if Johnson is calling you on the telephone, while the new collection utilizes the latest in computer technology to remove most of the pops and scratches.  What’s left might surprise you: you can actually hear Johnson breathing between vocal phrases, hear his hands move across the guitar, and even hear traffic passing by the hotel where these songs were originally recorded.  Instead of sounding like a dead guy calling you from a phone booth, these new versions help unmask the true Robert Johnson – there’s so much more humanity wrapped up in these new remasters.

Another improvement over the 1990 release is the sequence of songs: the older collection chose to include the alternate takes right along with the released ones – so you’d get two versions of the same song back to back, making for repetitive listening.  In this new set, they’ve chosen to put the master takes first, then stick the alternate takes of those songs at the end of the disc.

So much has been already written about these hallowed recordings, that to go in depth would certainly be redundant.  However, consider this: disc one starts with “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “When You Got a Good Friend,” and “Come on In My Kitchen” – all recorded in one  recording session – there’s not a single more important session in the history of blues music.  In addition to the stunning sound quality, The Complete Recordings also includes an updated biography (we’ve learned a lot more about Johnson’s lineage in the 21 years since the box set), and an in-depth essay about how these recordings were “brought back to life.”  Even if you already own these recordings in some other form – The Centennial Collection is still worth every penny. –Tony Peters