It’s funny isn’t it? For an artist who has always strived to be so closely associated with the blues, Eric Clapton seems to have spent a large part of his solo career exploring non-blues music. In the mid 70s he showed a fondness for reggae, in the late 70s country, and during the second half of the 80’s he achieved huge success in the adult rock/pop field. Granted, there’s always been some blues along the way (in the case of 1994’s ‘From The Cradle’ and 2004’s ‘Me and Mr Johnson’, he even managed to deliver a couple of albums devoted completely to the genre), but with such a broad musical palette, it’s difficult to pigeonhole Clapton as a blues musician, even though that’s what he so desperately craves.
For this, his nineteenth solo studio release, Clapton offers a mix of covers and a couple of newly written numbers (Clapton himself only contributing one track – and even then, it’s a co-write with producer and general right hand man, Doyle Bramhall). As expected, ‘Clapton’ (the album) features a few decent blues numbers and a couple of okay other tracks. Probably what you’re not expecting, though, is for so much of the disc to feature versions of jazz standards from the 30s and 40s.
A rendition of Lil’ Son Jackson’s ‘Travelin’ Alone’ opens the album with a blues workout where Clapton’s guitar duels (but gently) with the dirtier tone of Doyle Bramhall. The grumbling blues is punctuated by bursts of yelping Hammond Organ, courtesy of Walt Richmond. Meanwhile, Clapton’s vocal is okay, but lacks the soufulness of some of his past performances. It provides some decent opening bait, but that promise is quickly ushered aside by the arrival of the first of ‘Clapton’s easy listening numbers. A laid-back rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’ is led by gently brushed drums (subtly played by Abe Laboriel Jr), a piano (courtesy of Richmond, once again) and some really tasteful blues guitar played by Derek Trucks. While the lovely guitar work and piano flourishes have their moments, this is unchallenging even by Clapton’s standards. I may have been more forgiving had it closed this album, but to wheel this out as the second track?
A JJ Cale original, ‘River Runs Deep’ fares much better. While still rather easy on the ear, Cale’s style of roots music has a timeless quality, and hearing the man himself back Clapton is something always welcomed. While this track never pushes itself beyond twangy meandering, its six minutes never drags. The introspective warmth of the performance is given extra depth by the presence of sparingly used organ and brass. This could have easily found a home on Cale and Clapton’s ‘Road To Escondido’ release from 2006 and is almost guaranteed to please fans of that disc. Cale’s other contribution ‘Everything Will Be Alright’ is also one of the album’s best numbers. Busier than ‘River Runs Deep’, here, Clapton fronts a soulful number which features a smooth jazzy solo, a string section and horns, topped with Hammond Organ work from Paul Carrick. While it may not have the introspective spookiness of some of Cale’s best work, its classy arrangement makes this an album standout.
Irving Berlin’s much covered ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’ allows Clapton to deliver an easy, relaxed vocal against gentle orchestration and his hard-plucked acoustic guitar. As good as Clapton’s performance on this track may be, it’s not as good as his similar performance on Ray Charles’s ‘Hard Times’ (as featured on Clapton’s 1989 LP, ‘Journeyman’). Like ‘Rockin’ Chair’, I wouldn’t necessarily choose to listen to this if it weren’t part of a bigger mix of music, and while Clapton, no doubt, is playing music he enjoys, it’s possibly not going to be completely embraced by his huge fanbase.
A cover of ‘My Very Good Friend The Milkman’ (a tune best associated with Fats Waller) may have been given an air of New Orleans authentication by the presence of the legendary Allen Toussaint, but that – along with jazz man Wynton Marsalis guesting on trumpet – isn’t enough to save it’s three minute shuffling from being more than a bit bland. In a similar vein, Clapton’s treatment of Waller’s ‘When Somebody Thinks Your Wonderful’ just doesn’t sit right. While the music is tight, with Allen Toussaint’s piano work shining and the brass section really evoking the New Orleans jazz sound of the 1930s, hearing a fairly smooth voiced man from Surrey deliver the vocal just doesn’t seem right. I can imagine Dr John having a decent stab at this, but it’s not right for Clapton.
A solid rendition of Little Walter’s ‘Can’t Hold Out Much Longer’ brings this album a decent blues performance. It’s a number which features one of Clapton’s more classic sounding vocals, intercut with tiny bursts of his great blues guitar work. For this standard blues workout, he’s backed sparingly by Jim Keltner on drums, Willie Weeks on upright bass and Kim Wilson playing some dirty sounding blues harp, held together by Walt Richmond on the piano. Equally enjoyable, a run through of ‘That’s No Way To Get Along’ (originally by Memphis bluesman Robert Wilkins) is given a shake-up via a New Orleans influenced boogie. While this tune will be familiar to most people in its re-titled, bare-bones arrangement ‘Prodigal Son’ (as covered by The Rolling Stones in 1968), this rendition, featuring Clapton and JJ Cale in a vocal duet, is one of the album’s best numbers (isn’t it interesting that all three of this album’s most interesting numbers all feature Cale rather heavily, either in performance or song writing?). While Walt Richmond and Jim Keltner do a top job on piano and drums respectively, this busy arrangement is given extra charm by bluesman Derek Trucks guesting on slide guitar.
A duet with Sheryl Crow, ‘Diamonds Made From Rain’ is very slick. Both vocalists sound good together, though Clapton’s vocal dominates, rather surprisingly. The song itself is well written, but it’s rather ordinary arrangement means it doesn’t quite have the chops to make it a classic in either artists back catalogue. Clapton’s featured guitar solo has his trademark sound and is an equal match for his best late 80s work; it’s a comfort to know he can still play in such a way… Listening to huge chunks of ‘Clapton’, you could be forgiven for thinking he’d given up, having handed so much responsibility to his guest players.
The gentle acoustic blues of ‘Hard Time Blues’ allows Clapton to exercise the softer edges of his vocal style, but since the best guitar playing on the track comes from Doyle Bramhall’s timeless slide work, this seems to be another track which Clapton glides through on autopilot. A treatment of Snooky Prior’s ‘Judgement Day’ is presented here in an effortless rendition. While Clapton’s vocal is pleasing, it’s the counter melody from the backing vocal which lifts the piece. Clapton’s musical input here is negligible too, since most of the lead work comes courtesy of Kim Wilson’s harmonica.
The Clapton-Bramhall composition ‘Run Back To Your Side’ features a slight JJ Cale-esque feel (likely to please fans of Clapton’s classic 1974 outing ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’) as well as hints of Robert Johnson’s ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day’. The whole band finds their groove – even Clapton himself sounds like he’s slipped on an old pair of shoes, musically speaking. A backing vocal from Nikka Costa, Lynn Mabry and Debra Parsons helps give this the kind of rousing send-off that Yvonne Elliman and Marcy Levy would have back in the old days.
Returning to similar territory as ‘Rockin’ Chair’, the jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’ closes the disc. While Clapton’s hushed baritone could be kindly described as pleasant, this song sounds like elevator music delivered by a tired old man. Granted, Clapton’s post-Derek and the Dominos career may not have always had much fire, but it has rarely sunk to this level of easy listening. He may be backed by a rather classy selection of hired hands, but that doesn’t make his renditions of the jazz standards any more interesting. Rather interestingly, the number of covers on this disc, coupled with a fondness for easy listening material calls to mind another 2010 release – a release from one of El Clappo’s closest peers – ‘Emotion and Commotion’ by Jeff Beck.
This album certainly brings plenty in the way of star performers, and ‘Clapton’ isn’t a really bad record by any means (and it’s certainly far better than the aforementioned Jeff Beck release). But, that said, it’s not great either – its gentle approach means most of it drifts past without making too much impact. Repeated listens uncover a few hidden depths, but it’s still one of Clapton’s most lightweight offerings. It is generally not a record you will return to time and again, as you possibly will have done with some of EC’s classics.
Many Clapton die-hards will undoubtedly sing his praises and he may even bring in a few new listeners (especially those who enjoy easy vocal jazz). For most of Clapton’s more casual listeners, though, there are a good few of the man’s albums they need to check out before even considering acquiring this one.