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Music: Green shows his blues are back

After 20 years in the wilderness, Fleetwood Mac's legend returns, says James McNair
When Mick Fleetwood received his lifetime achievement award at this year's Brits ceremony, he was quick to thank Peter Green for kick- starting Fleetwood Mac back in 1967. A nice touch perhaps, but more cynical viewers might have wondered why the neo-blues legend who had composed "Oh Well" and "Albatross" was not there in person. Perhaps those concerned had decided that, with 20-odd years of LSD-induced "confusion" behind him, it would be safest to airbrush Green out of such a high-profile event

Born Peter Greenbaum in 1946, the guitarist was a sensitive, Jewish London East Ender who took a lot of stick from other kids. He came to prominence in 1966, when he replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbrakers. Prodigiously talented at 20, he soon proved himself to be at least as gifted as his predecessor - no mean feat when you consider that Clapton's aficionados simply knew him as "God".

Fleetwood Mac capitalised on the late Sixties blues boom as voraciously as any of their peers, and it was on an early Mac tour of the United States in 1968 that Green first dropped acid. The band were hanging out with the Grateful Dead in New York when Garcia and co's dealer-in-situ, Augustus Stanley Owsley III, persuaded them to sample some of his LSD tabs. Psychologically, Green was less-well equipped to deal with the effects than Fleetwood or bass-player John McVie. His continued use of LSD seemed to trigger a slow withdrawal from reality, and he began to question his whole belief system.

By the time Fleetwood Mac began a fourth US tour in August 1969, Green had renounced his Jewish faith, opting instead for a composite of Christianity and Buddhism, and often wearing a monk's robes and an enormous crucifix on stage. It was around this time that he taught his pet parrot to whistle "Waltzing Matilda" backwards.

Post-Fleetwood Mac, Green donated his guitars to an Oxfam shop and led an eccentric, reclusive life for many years. In the early Seventies, he worked as a gravedigger and as a hospital orderly. He had a weight problem and his mental health was deteriorating. By 1977, he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and things reportedly took a turn for the better when he booked himself into a health clinic. As recently as the mid-Eighties, however, he was reported to be sleeping rough.

It was somewhat unexpected when the tentative return to the fray which began with Green's somewhat patchy albums for the PVK label gained momentum last year. The Peter Green Splinter Group album garnered excellent reviews. Indeed, many critics seemed quietly thrilled that Green - who had painstakingly relearned guitar and harmonica by playing along with the Country Music Television Channel - was sounding like himself again.

His forthcoming record - a 16-track collection of Robert Johnson songs with guests including former Free vocalist Paul Rogers - should help to cement the comeback. And if tackling the material of the undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta Blues seems sacrilegious, it is worth remembering that BB King once remarked that Green was the only white blues guitarist who could send shivers down his spine.

The sleeve notes for the new record cite summer 1995 as a turning point for Green, when after a day's fishing, fellow Splinter Group guitarist Nigel Watson's command of Robert Johnson's fingerstyle playing finally tempted Green to pick up a guitar again. Biographer Martin Celmins remarked that "Typically, Green's first try at nailing Johnson's music in the studio was `Preachin' Blues' - one of the most difficult slide guitar pieces ever."

This Sunday, Green and his band play at Ronnie Scott's club, and a set featuring both Robert Johnson songs and Green's own material is promised. If the preview tape of Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend" is anything to go by, the maestro's mojo is in perfect working order.

Green's Robert Johnson Songbook album is released on Snapper's Artisan Recordings on 18 May. He plays Ronnie Scotts club in Soho, London, with the Splinter Group on 5 April.