Eric Clapton Unplugged – A look back and review

I almost subconsciously used music for myself as a healing agent, and lo and behold, it worked… I have got a great deal of happiness and a great deal of healing from music.” – Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton Unplugged is by virtually any standards one of the most successful albums of all time. It sold 10 million copies in the U.S.  24 million worldwide. Everyone you know owns it. At least, everyone I know does. And why not? Clapton is one of the best guitarists ever, and it’s an amazing experience to hear him play a set stripped down and acoustic. Those of you who have followed this blog know that I am a huge fan of acoustic rock. Also, I’m a huge fan of Clapton. It’s a sublime combination.

One of the things that I think makes Eric Clapton Unplugged so special is his devotion to blues music. Most of the album is dedicated to Clapton’s blues heroes: Bo Diddley, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, and more. It also features several of Clapton’s megahits including “Layla” a heavily altered form and “Tears In Heaven,” which was new at the time but is now a pop-rock standard. The sound quality is crystal clear and the track list is beyond perfection. No wonder it sold 24 million copies.

Eric Clapton Unplugged was part of the hugely popular and important MTV Unplugged series. It was recorded on January 16, 1992 at Bray Film Studios in Windsor, England. For the performance, Clapton largely used Martin 000-28EC and 000-42 acoustic guitars. They sound sparkling and beautiful throughout the album. Clapton’s voice is in top form as well.

After opening the set with a breezy, jazzy piece called “Signe,” Eric Clapton Unplugged really kicks things off with Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” about as catchy and melodic as blues comes. With a short, sweet solo, the crowd erupts at the opener’s conclusion. “Hey Hey” is a Big Bill Broonzy tune that really swings and keeps the upbeat vibe of the show’s beginning. Even on the acoustic, Clapton’s solos flow magically from his fingertips like few other guitarists. They seem to dance across the fretboard without breaking a sweat.

The pain communicated in some songs on Eric Clapton Unplugged is palpable. The album was recorded not long after the tragic loss of Clapton’s son. But Clapton is able to channel what must be extreme emotion into an artistic achievement of the highest level. Of course, in no tune is this more true than the riveting and heartbreaking “Tears In Heaven.” It’s a pop-rock song well worthy of its various accolades. At the time the song was brand new. It must have been an incredible treat for the audience and one of the highlights on Eric Clapton Unplugged. “Lonely Stranger” is another Clapton original that remains in the world of pop-rock. It’s sugary sweet with subtle accents of piano. The twin acoustic guitars of Clapton and Andy Fairweather Low intertwine for rich texture, and the backup singers augment the music without overpowering it.

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” brings Eric Clapton Unplugged back to its bluesy roots. The audience claps approvingly as they recognize it; it’s a definite crowd-pleaser with it’s gentle shuffle. Clapton follows this up with a showstopper, his acoustic re-working of Layla. This rendition of Layla is perfect, albeit extremely different with its lazy tempo and soothing harmonies. “Layla” is often cited as the highlight of this album. As great as the performance is, I’m not convinced of this. Not that it’s Layla’s fault. There are a ton of standout tracks from this performance. Another excellent track on Eric Clapton Unplugged is the tune “Old Love” which clocks in at a serious 7:52 seconds. It features a warm, elegant keyboard solo by keyboardist Chuck Leavell. 

Speaking of standout blues tracks, Robert Johnson’s music makes several appearances on Eric Clapton Unplugged. His first occurs with the legendary song “Walkin’ Blues.” For this tune, Clapton brings out the slide and really lets the guitar moan and cry its deep sobs. Johnson is often considered another of the greatest guitarists ever, so it is a fitting tribute. Clapton makes especially good use of the bass strings, but makes the upper register sing as well. His solo is paced slowly, mellow, really digging into that blue feeling. And when he sings that those walkin’ blues are the worst feeling he’s ever had, you believe every note he delivers. The crowd eats it up. The second Robert Johnson song to make an appearance on Eric Clapton Unplugged is the lesser known “Malted Milk.” It is no less effective or impressive than Walkin’ Blues. Clapton may be known as a hard or soft rocker depending on the context, but here he is all straight blues. And it is glorious.

With other tunes by Lead Belly and Jesse Fuller, Eric Clapton Unplugged concludes on a strong note. It closes with a rocking, knockout version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’. It is sure to get you clapping, stomping, or at least nodding along in place if you like to keep your dance moves to a minimum. But no dance moves are required to listen to this epic, classic album. Just a desire to listen to a set of good old fashioned acoustic blues-rock. You won’t be wondering how this album sold 24 million records for long. 

– Brian R.
J&R Adventures

If you’re a Clapton person, definitely check out Tribut Apparel’s blog on Eric Clapton, “Eric Clapton Rises: Ten Ways a Bluesman Becomes a Legend” here. In it you can read all about Mr. Clapton’s rise to the top of the blues-rock world. It starts with his time as a Yardbird and continues on to the present. Also, I wrote it, so I’m slightly partial. 

A great review of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album was published by Ultimate Classic Rock, which you can read here.

Music Times has a cool list of their picks for the best MTV Unplugged performances here .

Featured photo by: Markus Grossalber

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