E. C. has been doing this a long time now – this year is the 50th anniversary of Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton – so hunkering down with this latest offering, in which he reunites with Glyn Johns, his producer for Slowhand and Backless, and has stellar contributions from keyboardist Chris Stainton and drummer Henry Spinetti, also vintage session-mates, leaves me thinking the album could have been titled I’m Still Here.
This collection of diverse songs is an impassioned statement of Clapton’s influences and predilections, paced and laid out methodically to alternate between the deep blues of Leroy Carr, Robert Johnson and Skip James, the emotion that he brought on “Layla” and “Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad,” some tunes from the sweeter side of the big band era which he heard growing up, and the rock-steady rambling of J.J. Cale, with two precious cuts represented here. And if I were to go to my record collection after writing this review, the Clapton albums I’d reach for would likely be Ridin’ with the King, The Road to Escondido, Behind the Sun, From the Cradle and Me and Mr. Johnson.
There’s elements of all of these in this highly enjoyable and pensive collection. Most striking to me is Clapton’s take on a blues that he did not attempt on his Robert Johnson tribute of 2004, because what Johnson did on the 1930s original with just two hands and his voice was so difficult to achieve for the master’s acolyte that he could only attempt it with the help of an entire band, “Stones In My Passway.”
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There’s so much going on in the original, with two different time signatures and contrasting vocal-guitar phrasings. You can hear it when he sings this verse:
I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing
Have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing
I got a woman that I’m lovin’, boy, but she don’t mean a thing
The arrangement is a rousing version of this blues plaint, punctuated by Clapton’s and Andy Fairweather Low’s guitar work, Dirk Powell’s tasteful accordion playing and Spinetti’s percussion. Though he will still tell you he isn’t quite satisfied, I think he nailed it.
Further expounding on his favorite academic subject – and making it seem like nothing quite that dry – Professor Clapton opens the set with Leroy Carr’s chillin’ “Alabama Woman Blues,” maintains the idiom with Skip James’ “Cypress Grove,” and acquits himself nicely with an original Clapton composition about musical contagion, “Catch the Blues.”
Then it’s off to the races with the chunky rhythms of J.J. Cale’s “Can’t Let You Do It” and “Somebody’s Knockin’.” But the emotional ballad side of Clapton is represented by a big band song “Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day,” which his dear departed aunt used to play for him as a lullaby when he was a child. Another signpost from E.C.’s introspective side is Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” which has a carnival-barker vibe, heightened by the high-hat and cymbals percussion and tinkling piano. It might remind you of The Band.
I am saving the most intriguing and revealing for last here, on the ballad “I Will Be There.” This soulful paean to faithful friendship will bring a tear to your eye if you’ve had a few. And while you are checking it out, Clapton has also left a tantalizing Easter egg on the record. Credited for acoustic guitar and vocals on this song is one Angelo Mysterioso, a pseudonym last used many moons ago by George Harrison on Cream’s “Badge.” So, is it an unearthed vocal by the late Beatle? Or that of his son Dhani Harrison? Clapton ain’t saying, says he’s sworn to secrecy. So I listened with my game face on the first couple of times, and figured, well it could have been Dhani, or maybe even James Taylor. But then I came across this live rendition from Japan with Ed Sheeran, and what do you know?
You be the judge. Get the album, put it on your iTunes collection, and hit repeat. You’ll be glad you did.