Clapton on Tour: Back to the Blues

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Clapton interview In Hartford-Courant. By Roger Catlin © 1994, The Hartford Courant.

The blues have been at the core of Eric Clapton's repertoire since his first public performances as a teen-ager, playing Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Boy Fuller songs solo in the London coffeehouses. Thirty years later, returning to an acoustic format after epitomizing the guitar rock god, he produced his most popular album in his career -- the 7-million selling ``Unplugged,'' which is still on the charts after two years. Once more, he was playing the kind of acoustic blues of Robert Johnson that started his career, and earning multiple awards for it along the way. Emboldened by the commercial acceptance as much as by his artistic achievement, Clapton on his new work made an even bolder move. ``From the Cradle,'' an all-blues, largely electric project, shot straight to No. 1 when it was released last month. It was not just a milestone in Clapton's long, distinguished career - his second straight No. 1 album and fifth overall - it was also a first for the musical genre he so loves. It was the the first time a blues album of any type had reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts. Clapton had brought his heroes the spotlight they long deserved. For a man who sang of ``Blues Power'' but spent much of the last 20 years crafting quieter pop, ``From the Cradle'' represents the first all-blues offering since he left the studied, reverent approach of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in early 1966 for the creative adaptation of blues by Cream. For his current fall U.S. tour, the biggest sure-fire sellout of the season, the blues on the album make up the crux of the show. Clapton borrows songs from Willie Dixon, Lowell Fulson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Freddy King on the new album. The tour material beyond ``From the Cradle'' has included ``Ain't Nobody's Business'' as well as Clapton's signature ``Crossroads,'' the Robert Johnson song he remade into his own anthem in a stirring version he arranged while in Cream. In concert, Clapton has been as much a blues archivist as entertainer, augmenting his presentation with period slide (not slide guitar, mind you; photo slides). And besides popular bluesmen Dixon, Waters, James and Howlin' Wolf, he's also glad to share the blues from the lesser known Jimmy Rogers, Waters' second guitarist, as well as a trio of World War II-era blues pianists - Eddie Boyd, Leroy Carr and Big Maceo. ``The bones of the thing is coming from inside me and my need to pay back all these people that I heard from day one,'' Clapton says in press materials accompanying the album. ``I want to emulate and pay back and say thank you.'' In a way, it's a return to his original path, he says. ``I'm really retracing my steps back to John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. It's almost as if I'm going back to the jumping off point and now producing my own blues band.'' The road band consists of Andy Fairweather Low on guitar, Dave Bronze on bass, Andy Newmark on drums, Chris Stainton on keyboards and Jerry Portnoy on harmonica. Backing them is the horn section of Roddy Lorimer, Tim Sanders and Simon Clarke. There is a theory that no matter what the style, everything Clapton has recorded can be interpreted as blues. Clapton himself has said that even when he was spending time singing pop music, such as ``Wonderful Tonight,'' he has tried to infuse it with at least a drop of the blues. With that in mind, he has surprised his tour audiences by playing a bluesy version of ``Layla.'' Can a blues version of ``Tears in Heaven'' be far behind?