"Blues," a double CD containing 25 tracks recorded by Eric Clapton during the '70s, is a revealing anthology of studio and concert performances. The British guitarist is alternately presented as disciple and master of the American music that remains his greatest inspiration.
The '70s were a pivotal time for Clapton, a period in which he suffered from drug and alcohol addiction yet also enjoyed some of his greatest commercial successes, including "I Shot the Sheriff," "Lay Down Sally" and "Wonderful Tonight," all Top 40 hits. "Blues" (Polydor) is almost entirely devoted to performances of a more intimate and personal nature--a blend of original tunes and familiar refrains that clearly provided Clapton with moments of spiritual and emotional release.
Four of the tracks are previously unissued, including sharply contrasting arrangements of Bo Diddley's "Before You Accuse Me" and a live and feverish 1976 performance of "Further on Up the Road" that finds Clapton briefly paired with one of his primary influences, the late blues guitarist Freddie King. Mostly, though, the musicians who helped shape Clapton's repertoire and fuel his imagination are present in spirit only.
Chicago harmonica legend Little Walter is the source for "Mean Old World," an acoustic showcase for Clapton and fellow guitarist Duane Allman. Otis Rush, the great Chicago blues guitarist, is saluted with a searing version of "Double Trouble," while Muddy Waters, who toured with Clapton in the late '70s, is the inspiration for "Blow Wind Blow." The music of Willie Dixon, Sleepy John Estes, Elmore James and even Leadbelly (remembered with an acoustic 12-string guitar version of "Alberta") is also represented, sometimes imaginatively reworked, sometimes reprised with more precision than emotion.
Several tracks on the album, including the Waters tune, underscore Clapton's vocal limitations--he's not in the same league as many of the singers he admires. Yet there's nothing forced or insincere about the cover tunes, and several of the original songs, particularly the pleading ballad "Give Me Strength," are delivered in a soul-weary voice that suggests Clapton was deeply burdened by his own sorrows.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)
"Blues Power: Songs of Eric Clapton" (House of Blues) is part of the label's "This Ain't No Tribute" series, which includes blues releases devoted to the music of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. By any name, the Clapton release is entertaining stuff, and a bit surprising, too, since it's the singers, not the guitar slingers, who sometimes leave the deepest impression.
Soulman Otis Clay, for example, nearly steals the show with his romantic reading of "Wonderful Tonight," while Ann Peebles interprets "Tears in Heaven" as a spiritual plea enveloped by gospel harmonies. Koko Taylor, in typically raucous form, summons more than enough energy to fuel "Blues Power" before Honeyboy Edwards goes unplugged and contributes one of the album's most affecting vocals during his slide guitar rendition of "Crossroads."
As for the electric guitarists, there's plenty of credit to go around. Slide phenom Derek Trucks helps prevent Eric Gales's rendering of "Layla" from sounding too polished and predictable. Buddy Guy cleverly links Freddie King and Clapton in a cool and evocative remake of "Strange Brew," and Otis Rush brings his stinging tone and considerable vocal might to an impassioned arrangement of "Old Love." No doubt Clapton himself will find a lot of pleasure in listening to this recording, tribute or not.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8152.)
CAPTION: Briton Eric Clapton's profound love of American blues has fueled his long career.