First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2010, Volume 17, #12
Written by John Metzger
Mon December 6, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
Being motivated by one’s influences and peers can play a positive role in the development of a musician’s creative process. After all, mastering the past and outmaneuvering the present inevitably pave a path to the future. The problem, however, is that once an artist finds his voice and reaches the top of the heap, there is nowhere to go but down. In their attempts to cling to fleeting fame, performers begin to question their judgment. As they lose sight of themselves, their confidence slips. To compensate, they develop routines and latch onto popular trends — regardless of how well the ideas fit with their overall vision.
As the 1970s drew to a close, Eric Clapton watched his career as it took a precipitous tumble. His commercial prospects never fully dissipated, but his continued artistic relevance most certainly was brought into question. With the release of Journeyman in 1989, Clapton seemed to realize how much ground he had to cover in order to get back on track. Still, his re-emergence likely took longer than anybody anticipated. Instead of creating albums that could compete with his twin gems from the mid-1970s — 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand — Clapton often just missed the boat. On efforts like Pilgrim and Reptile, he buried a number of promising songs inside an array of slick, R&B-imbued arrangements. Likewise, for all of the accolades that outings like Riding with the King and From the Cradle received, they also felt like exercises that existed for the sole purpose of reconnecting Clapton to his roots.
Despite several threats to retire from recording, Clapton persevered. His hard work finally paid dividends on his 2006 effort The Road to Escondido. Teamed with J.J. Cale, whom he long had admired and emulated, Clapton finally rediscovered his comfort level in the studio. Although he shared the stage with a number of guests, nothing about the album felt forced into place. Instead, the collection was a natural extension of the finest moments of his solo career. Clapton, the guitarist’s latest set, not only recaptures the spirit of its predecessor, but with its New Orleans brass and other jazzy textures, it also takes a wider berth as it traces an arc through his roots.
It isn’t a secret, of course, that in recent years Clapton quite publicly has been ruminating upon his legacy. Often, it has seemed as if he was in search of the place where his career veered onto a diversionary track. There is no doubt that it was therapeutic for him to pen his autobiography. The process subsequently sparked a journey of self-reflection. As part of his quest, Clapton has pleased fans not only by reviving Cream, but also by reuniting with Steve Winwood and rebuilding the essence of Derek and the Dominoes with Derek Trucks.
Considering that each of these explorations occurred in rapid succession, Clapton’s nostalgic enterprises could have been viewed simply as money-grabbing schemes. Nevertheless, Clapton’s efforts seemed like they had been designed specifically to lead him somewhere and reawaken his Muse. Better still, between the deliberation with which he was making his decisions and the passion he had brought to the projects, his gambits appeared to be working. Sure enough, his quest bears tremendous fruit on Clapton. Aided by a cast that includes Cale and Trucks — as well as Wynton Marsalis, Allen Toussaint, and Kim Wilson — Clapton delivers an hour-long cycle of songs that effortlessly engage the listener and hold a timeless charm.
Much like From the Cradle, Clapton is largely composed of cover tunes that range from Hoagy Carmichael’s Rocking Chair and Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean to Little Walter’s Can’t Hold Out Much Longer and Robert Wilkins’ That’s No Way to Get Along. In between, Clapton revisits J.J. Cale’s canon (River Runs Deep, Everything Will Be Alright) and co-pens a song that boasts a driving groove that seems to have been plucked directly from his mid-’70s output (Run Back to Your Side). Rather than traipsing through the past, however, Clapton brings a fresh perspective to the material. In the process, he provides a thorough examination of the blues that, for once, doesn’t sound like a thesis.
Of Further Interest...
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