Anyone who bought Aerosmith’s “Honkin’ on Bobo” looking for a straightforward homage to classic blues made the wrong choice. Ê”Honkin on Bobo” is not that record; Eric Clapton’s “Me and Mr. Johnson,” which came out on the same day, is. Clapton’s reverent tribute to one of his greatest inspirations, Robert Johnson, faithfully remakes the 1930s guitarist’s blues classics. But this effort succeeds because Clapton is, and has always been, a student of traditional blues. The members of Aerosmith, on the other hand, are not so much students of traditional blues as they are of Clapton himself (as well as of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and even peers like Stevie Ray Vaughan). “Honkin On Bobo” reflects this diversity; the album owes as much to “The White Album” and “Sticky Fingers” as it does to any traditional blues album. In fact, several of the tracks on “Honkin’ On Bobo” sound like covers of covers, far removed from their origins. “Baby Please Don’t Go” sounds little like the Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker incarnations, but a lot like the Van Morrison-led Them’s 1971 cover. Even more obvious: The Rev. Gary Davis’ “You Got To Move” was renamed “You Gotta Move” when the Rolling Stones covered it, also in 1971; Aerosmith’s “You Gotta Move” reflects the Stones’ version far greater than it does the original.
This game of Six Degrees of Separation can be played with the songs’ sounds as well. On the first track on the album, “Road Runner,” Aerosmith takes the simple rhythm and blues of Bo Diddley and just cranks up the electric guitar, so that the song rocks much like the Beatles’ “Birthday” (aside from the fact that neither Lennon nor McCartney felt the need to shout “Yeah!” every thirty seconds). The next track, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” successfully captures the bouncy piano identified with Little Richard and projects it, along with the requisite cranked electric guitars, onto Smiley Lewis’s single. And “Stop Messin’ Around” is a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac song that Aerosmith recorded with a harmonica-heavy eighties blues-revival sound; Joe Perry, who sings it, sounds like he’s impersonating Stevie Ray Vaughan. And so on.
There’s really a thin line between being selectively stylistic and being simply disjointed, and “Honkin’ on Bobo” flirts with that line for much of the record –a bit of sixties British blues here, a bit of fifties R&B there, some eighties blues revival here, some traditional blues there –and for the most part, it works. But what we’re left with, other people’s songs and styles, is still not very innovative.
What does Aerosmith itself contribute to the record? Aside from the unsurprising Aerosmith flamboyance (example: the record opens with a loud electric chord that hangs in the air, almost like the opening of U2’s “Desire,” and Steven Tyler wails, “Ladies and Gentlemen, step right up! Let’s go see the elephant!” before breaking into “Road Runner”), the only answer is a lot of electric guitar. “Honkin’ on Bobo” is described as Aerosmith’s “return to its roots,” which may have something to do with the return of producer Jack Douglas. Aerosmith’s loud and classic sound was refined by Douglas in the seventies and early eighties before the band and producer parted ways. The combination of Douglas’s return and the generally stripped nature of the blues means that the album’s sound is older and simpler, especially compared to “Just Push Play” and other recent Aerosmith records. But it’s still not that interesting. Aerosmith’s idea of variation on these tracks is apparently Steven Tyler’s whine and more volume. This is not to say that Aerosmith butchers the songs with guitar. The songs are a bit heavier, to be sure, but not excessively so. Also, the only original track on the album, “Grind,” should be the sum of Aerosmith’s blues influences, but it sounds more like a track that was cut from 1993’s “Get a Grip” because it was a little too bluesy.
What it comes down to is that Aerosmith’s treatment of the songs is not that interesting, but not that bad either. It’s a lot of electric guitar, simple blues rhythms and Steven Tyler’s voice. It seems like the type of album that would be good to blast on a car stereo while cruising down the highway. The reality, though, is that blues has been done and overdone quite a bit in the last half century, and “Honkin’ on Bobo” doesn’t exactly contribute anything that new or exciting.
But Aerosmith seems comfortable with this. Let Clapton be the purist; Aerosmith’s pick-and-choose blues is somewhat fun, if entirely derivative. Plus, the band gets to highlight less well-known artists that inspired them, such as Freedom and Amazing Grace. This is a survey of blues as told by Aerosmith, and it’s not a bad intro course.
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