Considering his résumé and his accomplishments, it's kind of surprising how infrequently the name Peter Green comes up in discussions of British rock guitar heroes. Here, after all, is a musician who not only fearlessly stepped into Eric Clapton's shotgun-riding post with John Mayall's Blues Breakers in 1966 and, via his lyrical and highly emotional playing style, lived to tell the tale but also turned around and founded one of the most enduring entities in all of rock over the last 30-odd years: Fleetwood Mac.
That bandleader Green named his group after its rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, turned out, of course, to be as ironic as it was prophetic. Green left the band after three albums in 1970, leaving behind a handful of inarguable classics, including the ethereal pop instrumental "Albatross," the frantic rocker "Oh Well," and, of course, the bluesy "Black Magic Woman," ultimately immortalized by Santana. But after he ceremoniously turned his back on stardom, and materialism (not very long after exiting Fleetwood Mac, he was photographed working as a gravedigger), his name began falling off the big board. And while he's periodically resurfaced with albums every decade or so since, much like the late Mike Bloomfield, he's been a musician recalled mostly only of and by his time.
That is, until the late '90s, when he began fronting a highly orthodox blues band called the Splinter Group. In 1998 he and guitarist Nigel Watson recorded the wonderful, albeit under-heard, Robert Johnson Songbook, which took (appropriately enough) "Comeback Album of the Year" honors at the annual W.C. Handy Awards. Now Green and Watson are back with a second collection of songs by the legendary Delta musician, and, as with its predecessor, it's an understated joy from start to finish.
If Green sounds older and wiser as he bobs and weaves through such Johnson evergreens as "Steady Rollin' Man" (RealAudio excerpt of Green version), "Little Queen of Spades" (RealAudio excerpt of Green version) (both featuring some sinewy guitar from guest Otis Rush), "Drunken Hearted Man" and "Come On in My Kitchen," it's probably because he's tapping into a more overtly country-blues side of Johnson's genius than is usually explored. This comes to the forefront on tracks such as "They're Red Hot" (RealAudio excerpt of Green version), Johnson's ode to hot tamales, which Green and the venerable pianist Dr. John turn on its jug band-y side, and "From Four Until Late," which the good doctor nimbly shifts into a New Orleans syncopator, as well as "Dead Shrimp Blues," which another guest player, Howlin' Wolf's longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin, nonchalantly shifts into a Jimmy Reed shuffle.
For his part, Nigel Watson acts as a combination conspirator/foil to Green, coaxing different shades from his vocal takes on "Hellhound on My Trail," "Preachin' Blues," and "Milkcow's Calf Blues," imbuing the songs with a fatalistic slant that, again, displays more of the myriad facets of Johnson's profoundly complex songs. The atmosphere is so contagious that you could be forgiven for not being able to immediately identify Buddy Guy (on "Cross Road Blues") or the aforementioned Rush on their guesting tracks. That both of these fire-breathing players can sound this subtle is nearly a revelation. That Peter Green made it happen isn't. After all, he really is one of the all-time greats.