The unplugged concept was just gathering steam when Eric Clapton sat down for his turn to be featured on MTV’s Unplugged series. The custom of artists who normally work in electric format scaling back to acoustic instruments in front of a live audience is generally traced back to a pair of primary sources -- Elvis Presley’s famous 1968 comeback concert, and Pete Townshend’s June 1979 acoustic performances of “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as part of the Amnesty International fundraiser The Secret Policeman’s Ball.
As the 80s wore on, acoustic music came back into vogue with artists like R.E.M. and Indigo Girls exploring the folk roots of their own music, and by 1987 MTV was catching on, televising an acoustic performance by Jethro Tull. By 1989-90 MTV formalized the concept into a series of specials featuring a variety of different electric artists playing Unplugged before a small studio audience in an intimate venue. (Source for above two paragraphs.)
In the meantime, guitar hero Eric Clapton was going through a particularly difficult stretch in his life, as he sought to recover from the accidental death of his four-year-old son Conor, as well as the loss of his friend Stevie Ray Vaughan. At the time of his January 1992 appearance on MTV Unplugged, the only new music he had issued since 1989’s Journeyman album had been a single deeply poignant tribute to Conor, “Tears In Heaven,” released on the 1991 soundtrack to the movie Rush.
The emotional context of these performances is key to their power. For while Unplugged is far afield from just about every other album Clapton has ever recorded, for some of us, it’s its among the very best of his long career.
One reason is that, as good an electric guitar player as Clapton is (and don’t forget the old
A second reason arises from the reality that Clapton, for all his wonderful songs and performances, has never been a great singer, only a pretty good one. On this album, though, he never has to push his voice beyond its natural capabilities, and as a result he sounds relaxed and in the groove at all times and delivers arguably the best vocal performance of his career. He pays more attention to vocal arrangements here, too, flavoring tracks like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out” with effective background vocal support from Katie Kissoon and Tessa Niles.
A third is the way he transforms two of his most famous songs in ways large and small. When he launches into “Tears In Heaven” with no introduction, the crowd immediately hushes. While he doesn’t vary the arrangement much -- it was a gentle, quiet ballad already -- he delivers the vocal of a lifetime, a weary man gathering strength enough to wring every last bit of emotion out of a song that is already supercharged with it. When he sings “Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees / Time can break your heart, have you beggin’ please / Beggin’ pleeee-ease,” it’s one of the most devastating moments in the history of recorded music. When he finishes, rushing ahead into the opening chords of the next song as if willing himself forward, lest he bog down in the emotion of the moment, the audience goes from stunned, church-worthy silence to firm, damp-eyed applause that forces him to hold up until they finish.
The greater musical transformation is achieved with his signature tune, the unrequited love epic “Layla,” which is made over completely into a gentle, deliberate soliloquy against a skittering, jazzy backdrop. Considering the song itself is an imagined conversation occurring entirely inside Clapton’s head, putting it in this context makes perfect sense and breathes magnificent new life into a song that was already a classic.
There will always be those purists who cry foul when you mess with a song as iconic as “Layla,” or an approach as cherished as Clapton’s earthy electric blues-rock. But Unplugged, in addition to marking Clapton’s return to the music-making arena, remains one of his most accessible and interesting albums. As for the non-purists, they bought over ten million copies of this disc, so it’s safe to say Mr. Clapton did something right.
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