Eric Clapton, “Clapton” [Reprise Records]


Time to rejoice blues fans, EC is back in town! After some lackluster, saccharine pop recordings, Clapton returns to our neighborhood, driving an ice cream truck, rambunctiously ringing his bell and calling all blues fans to gather around for some tasty musical treats on this latest gem of a recording. Clapton is joined by a fabulous group of compatriot ice cream scoopers, all dressed up with places to go. This is a stripped-down, raucous group, anchored by the fiery Kim Wilson, wailing away on his harmonica, joined by Jim Keltner on drums, Willie Weeks on bass, co-producer and arranger, Doyle Bramhall II on guitar and the swashbuckling Walt Richmond on piano and Hammond organ. Clapton enlists another configuration of scoopers straight from the heart of New Orleans, with Allen Toussaint on piano, a swinging brass section and cameos from Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty and rugboard player Sherelle Mouton- just for the textured sprinkles. Finally, Clapton recruits guitar slingers JJ Cale and Derek Trucks to anchor a third concession stand that whips up some of its own tasty concoctions. Here, the eclectic mix-ins include Cale and Terry Evans on backing vocals; warm luscious strings from the London Session Orchestra; brass and accordion accents, and finally, Richmond whirling away on his Wurlitzer. With only a few cuts in the overly polished and sweet territory (notably “Diamonds Made From Rain”), Clapton has thrown himself into this new recording with panache, offering the listener more pleasure than Baskin and Robbins’ original 39 flavors. Careful attention has also been paid to the quality of this recording. It provides a deep and wide soundstage, chock full of tactile and ambient clues snaring the crackling energy of these free wheeling sessions.

There are many highlights to this recording, and interestingly, the cherry on top is Clapton’s masterful vocals throughout. The first two cuts, “Travelin’ Alone” and “Rocking Chair,” illustrate the range and confidence of Clapton’s vocals. On “Travelin,” Clapton’s vocal phrasing is all gruff and husky as he rides the huge bass undercurrents provided by Weeks and Keltner’s stiff, upper lip drum slams. In contrast, on “Rocking Chair,” we are out on a sunny back porch luxuriating in feathery blues lines from Trucks’ slide guitar, drummer Abel Laboriel Jr.’s impeccable brushes and Clapton’s perfectly lazy, languid vocals. From this lush, easygoing setting, we then head to the barnburning that Kim Wilson ignites with his harp on both “Judgment Day” and “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer.” Wilson’s pyrotechnics out front inspire Clapton and the band to another level of intensity. This is Clapton at his best: raw, hard-edged and ready to pounce. His vocals are brilliant and chameleon-like leaping and slurring effortlessly next to Wilson’s capacious harp and the dynamite backing vocal arrangements. Keltner and Weeks provide bass and drum foundations to these two slow-brewing numbers, with Clapton grappling and growling throughout. Similarly, on “Run Back To Your Side,” Clapton and Trucks put some fireballs in the cream; all high licks and slides, propelled by Keltner’s percussion, a furiously shaken tambourine (deep in the soundstage) and sparks flying from the sassy background chorus. This cut reminds one of the classic Layla sessions, with Trucks now carving out his own genius on slide guitar. The blues also get acoustic treatment on the magnificent, “Hard Times Blues,” where Clapton sings with luminescent confidence in partnership with the light punctuations of his mandolin, Keltner’s crisp brushes and Bramhall’s guitar solo. Heartache and hardscrabble times sung from the heart, with toes-a-tapping.

The menu board changes when we head to that gastronomic delight that is New Orleans, and Clapton and his compatriots do not disappoint. “My Very Good Friend The Milkman,” strides onto the stage with brilliant flash and panache. Again, Clapton’s vocals are spot-on; a mixture of comedy, slyness and saucy suggestion. Intertwined in this drama is the pump iron of Matt Pyreem’s tuba; the blat of Wynton Marsalis’ high trumpet; a boatload of finesse from Toussaint and Richmond’s piano solos and finally, Michael White’s clarinet, floating like fudge on top. “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful,” is another lilting ditty, transporting one to Basin Street with blaring trumpets and dancing clarinets, bellowing tuba and Clapton’s vocals cavorting in and out with playful intonation and verve. And, speaking of drama, Clapton takes the classic recipe of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean,” and transforms it into a warm, loving and slow-paced blues ballad. This ingenious creation is perfectly baked and seasoned with strings nestled behind Clapton’s soft vocals and warm guitar lines, while Marsalis’ trumpet softly wanders through the daydream landscape. The last cut on the recording, “Autumn Leaves,” is in this same vein. Clapton renders this tune in long, seamless vocal and guitar lines, while Richmond’s pitter patter on piano speaks of rain in the forecast. Cushioned in warm strings and Laboriel’s brush strokes, Clapton stretches out on his resonant guitar, sashaying quietly into the distance; driving his truck of marvels into the blues sunset.

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