Monday, October 11, 2010

Vintage: Clapton

Now at the age of 65, Eric Clapton has nothing left to prove as a singer, guitarist and icon of rock music. So it may come as a surprise to learn that he's finally let go of all the pressure from the so-called rock press and die-hard "Layla" fans to live up to his icon status. This record, simply entitled Clapton, is more of a vintage work: balanced, laid-back and sentimental. Surrounded by musical friends such as J.J. Cale, Jim Keltner, Willie Weeks and producer Doyle Bramhall II, what you'll find here is a musical mix of blues, gospel and jazz standards (that's right, Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean" and "Autumn Leaves" make the cut). Clapton also went to New Orleans and added Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty and Allen Toussaint to the band for a swinging version of "My Very Good Friend The Milkman" and "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful." These tracks stand out on the album because Clapton, the great imitator in some people’s minds, has reverently captured the flavours and street feel of New Orleans.

Two tracks feature J.J. Cale, whose songs Clapton has made famous, such as "After Midnight" and "Cocaine." They recorded a duet album in 2006 called The Road to Escondido. It was a decent effort. But this time the songs are arranged in a more ambitious way (with strings no less) and a band surrounding Clapton that is at once tight and musically in the pocket. "Everything Will Be Alright" and "River Runs Deep" kick with that perfect swamp-blues feel. In fact this whole record is about feel from the musicians to the leader himself. On a duet with Sheryl Crow, "Diamonds Made From Rain," Clapton sings, "everything that I've endured...I wouldn't change a can make diamonds from rain." It’s a beautiful sentiment with the right touch of embellishment from the London Strings Orchestra. Fortunately, it doesn't fall into one of those overwrought 80s power ballads. While not the greatest song in the world, "Diamonds Made From Rain" sounds sincere to me.

Blues music is a style Clapton knows only too well going back to his days with John Mayall, The Yardbirds and Cream. He's released a couple of records featuring the music of Robert Johnson and he's usually included a blues number on just about every record he's released as a solo artist. This new album features a few more, "Travelin' Alone," "Can't Hold Out Much Longer" and "Hard Times Blues." These tracks stand out for their effortless playing and understated feel. The tempo picks up significantly on the penultimate track, Clapton's "Run Back To Your Side," featuring the under-recognized Derek Trucks on slide guitar. One of the best songs on the record is J.J. Cale's "Everything Will Be Alright." The groove is irresistible and the strings support and nurture Clapton's ever-tasteful solo.

Twenty-five years ago, I would have said that Clapton "lost it" by recording “Autumn Leaves” the much beloved jazz standard. A full album of this material would have made me blush in embarrassment. But to close out the record with such a sweet version of "Autumn Leaves," adding a good guitar solo on the fade, has me wondering what my problem is. (Perhaps it's those flaccid Rod Stewart records of the American Songbook that are jumping to mind.) Clearly for Clapton, these songs flowed without pretense or any pressure to prove his worth. Much like his image on the cover, Clapton stands proud of his accomplishments in music and this record is certainly one of them.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, actor and theatre director.

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