Unplugged

By: Eric Clapton

Type: Acoustic blues and rock

Hot Tracks:
  • Tears in Heaven
  • Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
  • Layla
  • Old Love

Wow.

What can I say about Eric Clapton that hasn't already been said by hundreds of other reviewers? The man is constantly changing, constantly experimenting, consistently staying in the public view. His timing on this project was impeccable; he brought major attention to MTV's "Unplugged" show at a time when its future was uncertain as well as opening himself up to a brand new audience by showing his more mellow, acoustic side.

Most of the songs on this album are pretty simple to play. Simple songs, simple arrangements, informal atmosphere. The key is the facility with which Clapton and his band of studio musicians execute the material. Even though much of it has been heard at coffee houses and acoustic jams for years, never has a star of Clapton's magnitude shown his expertise on the old standards in this way. One of the songs, "Nobody Knows You ...," first came to my attention through a solo acoustic guitar player named Rex Hegyi in Durango, Colorado. I became fascinated with the song, but couldn't find the Jimmy Cox original anywhere. Hearing Clapton play it -- and revitalize it -- closed a portion of my life that had remained open for several years, and I was finally able to put down my obsession with that song and learn how to play it recognizably. That is possibly the most remarkable thing about this album; Clapton took the opportunity to showcase his blues influences as well as satisfy the audience by playing some of his originals. Eight of the songs (more than half) were not written by Clapton; two were Robert Johnson songs, which is important because it introduces the music of the father of delta blues to a younger audience and prompted the release of a Robert Johnson boxed set.

In terms of the Robert Johnson tunes, "Malted Milk" and "Walkin' Blues," I have a confession to make. I like Clapton's versions better. I've listened to original Johnson recordings of both songs, and I have to admit that Clapton's timing and solos are better. Johnson had a habit of throwing in extra beats in a measure or dropping some notes from a measure before playing the next part. Some of this was probably due to the fact that he was playing solo; he didn't need to keep time correctly for the benefit of other musicians most of the time. From listening to his work on other pieces, I'm sure he made the changes intentionally. They contribute to the soul and down home feel of Johnson's music; you know he was real from listening to his music. Still, they grate on the ears of the typical listener. Clapton takes the liberty of "fixing" those spots in his covers of these two Johnson tunes. His timing is loose enough to feel authentic, yet tight enough to maintain a consistent rhythm. On one of the songs ("Walkin' Blues" I think; I don't have the Johnson Boxed Set for reference) Clapton substitutes a guitar solo from another Robert Johnson recording for the solo that exists on the Johnson Boxed Set recording of the song. Again, this substitution works better than the original. It is also important to note that Andy Fairweather Low plays along with Clapton on "Malted Milk," so the timing fixes may have been necessary for playability on that tune.

That Clapton can take original pieces from one of his heroes and expand them shows an interesting contrast of humility and reality. In his trademark sheepishness, Eric might disagree that his versions are better, but we are free to make the call as listeners. True, there are several decades between Eric Clapton's versions of many of the songs on this disc and the originals, and that the original artists came up with them at all is worth a large dose of respect. Eric's method of showing that respect is to propagate the music, with a few additions of his own.

With his own pieces, he feels no compunction about changing them up a bit. The most obvious example is "Layla," a shortened (thank God!) version of the Derek and the Dominos tune. The song now boasts a slow, swing rhythm that immediately induces swaying and toe tapping. The vocals are not strained like in the original and the solos are short but meaningful. We no longer have to endure the crying slide weaving in and out of a repeating piano riff for several minutes; the solo is entirely flatpicked with no slide.

"Old Love," originally a collaboration between Clapton and Robert Cray, takes on a soulful, jazzy feel. Chuck Leavell's piano solo is perfect for the feel of the piece, even getting a verbal stamp of approval from Eric himself as the notes spiral upward from the keys. The now famous "Tears in Heaven," in which Clapton laments the death of his young son, is well executed, though some critics feel the studio version is better. Personally, I prefer this acoustic version, but I am also more used to it than the other.

Eric Clapton gave a great gift to the world when he made this album. It is an educational trip through the world of acoustic blues, a candid look at another side of one of the world's best entertainers and evidence of how music has the power to make people smile when performed correctly. I recommend this CD to anyone with even a remote interest in the music of Eric Clapton.

Rating (out of a possible five):

 

 

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