Eric Clapton and London’s Royal Albert Hall are virtually synonymous. In various contexts he has played the storied venue more than 200 times – first with the Yardbirds in 1964, but mainly as bandleader for his yearly stints, even racking up 24 nights in ’91.
But in 2021, his shows were cancelled due to the global pandemic. So, he gathered a pared-down edition of his band at an estate in Sussex, where they played old favorites, familiar blues, and newer songs to an audience of one – Clapton’s wife of 19 years, Melia McEnery. The set was recorded and filmed for a project now titled The Lady In The Balcony, a.k.a. The Lockdown Sessions.
I was prepared to not like this, mainly because recent releases were pretty sleepy affairs. And despite its multi-Grammy status, his Unplugged album from ’92 is one of my least favorite in his catalog. So when this set began with “Golden Ring” sounding like a lullaby, I figured it would be all I could do to stay awake. But after Eric says, “This one’s for Peter,” comes a rendition of Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman.” It’s rather Fleetwood Mac “lite,” but a commendable, sincere gesture. On the next nod to Green, “Man Of The World,” the acoustic treatment nicely suits the more-spare elements of the original.
In the liner notes, producer Russ Titelman says, “We didn’t try to make it sound like a rock-and-roll record,” and that’s certainly the case. Whereas Clapton’s road band in recent years has included female background singers, two drummers, singer/keyboardist Paul Carrack, and guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, this spartan unit consisted only of bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Gadd, and keyboardist Chris Stainton. The guitar hero, then not quite 75, plays acoustic six- and 12-strings on all but three tunes. He’s obviously a capable acoustic guitarist, but had that been his focus when he hit the scene 50-plus years ago, he would not have had much of an impact on the guitar world. There were numerous acoustic specialists far better and more interesting – countrymen like John Renbourn and Davy Graham, or Americans Stefan Grossman and John Fahey.
But on electric, Clapton shook the world, changing the way blues and rock guitar were played as few had before or have since. That’s undeniable. Most of the repertoire here, though, is surprisingly simple. Though such world-class musicians are capable of dazzling technique, the material calls for restraint and taste. Key is the emotional content. To that end, Clapton gives heartfelt vocals on “Bell Bottom Blues,” from Derek & the Dominos, and “River Of Tears,” off 1998’s Pilgrim.
None of the blues covers (“Rock Me Baby,” “Key To The Highway,” “Long Distance Call”) are definitive though “Going Down Slow” is given a new lease on life with descending altered chords.
I cringe every time I hear the acoustic version of “Layla” because it doesn’t make sense; he took his greatest composition – something written and delivered in utter desperation – and turned it into a sing-song ditty. And when Titelman (acting as pitch man) says, “That version of ‘Layla’ is the best version that’s ever been performed anywhere,” it’s utter B.S.
A Gibson Byrdland and an ES-335 are called into duty for the last three numbers, culled from Muddy Waters’ and Eddie Taylor’s repertoires. The world doesn’t need another rendition of “Got My Mojo Working,” but it’s the most spirited song of the day.
Forty-five years ago, I did the first of seven interviews with Clapton, including the February ’07 VG cover story with him and J.J. Cale and a ’14 video interview in conjunction with his tribute to Cale (the latter can be viewed at whereseric.com). Somehow, being knowledgeable about an artist equates in some minds as championing him. That’s not my job, but neither is it to rip into him, or any musician. Someone will feel the need to tell me, “Clapton is overrated.” Probably true. But if they dismiss his guitar playing, I point them to the Blues Breakers album with John Mayall or Fresh Cream – which invariably they haven’t heard.
With all artists, my interviews have been about music, not lifestyle – a strength of the publications I’ve worked for. But when friends found out I was covering Clapton’s new album, some wondered if, given E.C.’s adversarial stance toward the lockdown and Covid vaccinations, I would interview him if the opportunity arose again.
Of course I would. I’m capable of separating the person from the art; I don’t have to like one to appreciate the other. That didn’t seem the case with recent articles in Rolling Stone and elsewhere. Clapton’s sins dating back to ’76 are fair game, but so is the fact that elder blues statesmen thought the world of him, he auctioned most of his guitar collection to finance a drug rehab center in Antigua, and he promoted a series of the largest (and most-varied) guitar festivals, dubbed Crossroads.
I do, however, wish he’d wear a goddamn mask.
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.