Unplugged (Deluxe Edition)

Eric Clapton

Rhino, 2013

http://www.ericclapton.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/07/2014

“…as much as I’d enjoyed playing all the songs, I didn’t think [Unplugged] was that great to listen to. When it came out, it was the biggest-selling album of my entire career, which goes to show what I know about marketing.” – Clapton: The Autobiography, p. 254

Let’s face it, if ever a rock and roll artist was a marketer’s nightmare, it’s Eric Clapton. A moody musical chameleon who went through more bands in his first decade in the business than most big names do in a career, Clapton has been famously hard to pin down in just about every aspect of his public life. Even his 2007 autobiography, for all its confessional moments, ends up feeling rather opaque and detached, the man at the center of the stormy life it describes still somewhat of an enigma.

That said, one can only chalk it up to his overwhelming personal circumstances—clinging hard to sobriety after losing his four-year-old son Conor in a tragic accident—that Clapton failed to comprehend the broad appeal of Unplugged. Both a return to the world for a major musical figure who’d gone understandably silent for many months, and a return to his own blues roots, Unplugged gave him the chance to showcase the new music he’d been working on—deeply introspective and emotional material, as you might expect—alongside a set of blues classics.

The fact that the entire exercise was carried out in an acoustic setting did two things; it underscored the rich emotional content of these songs, both the old and the new, and it provided the perfect musical framework for Clapton’s distinctive voice. Never a powerhouse singer, Clapton’s vocals had always been overshadowed by his guitar playing, even after he had overcome his early jitters in front of the mike to become a more confident frontman by the late 1980s. The gentler, folksier back-porch arrangements found here frame Clapton’s rough-edged voice beautifully, spurring him to the best vocal performance of his career. (For more thoughts on the original audio-only nbtc__dv_250 Unplugged album release, see my review of it.)

The Deluxe Edition is a well-constructed triple-disc package, featuring the original album on disc one, a short set of six outtakes and alternates on disc two, and the full Unplugged broadcast on the accompanying DVD, which also adds a video recording of the rehearsal session held earlier the same day.

The outtakes include “Circus,” about the night before Conor’s death, when Clapton had taken him to the circus, and “My Father’s Eyes,” about his search for his own father; studio versions of both tracks would later be featured on Clapton’s 1998 Pilgrim album. Both songs were cut from the initial broadcast and album because Clapton felt they weren’t ready, though the recordings released here suggest it was he who wasn’t ready to let go of them. “Worried Life Blues” is another highlight of the outtakes, a pleasant old blues stomper.

The DVD is what you would either remember, or expect, depending on whether you’ve ever seen the original broadcast version. The staging is simple, the camera work solid, and the superb band backing Clapton gels beautifully on each and every track.

One specific note on the DVD: watching the band as Clapton ranges through the heartbreaking “Tears In Heaven,” his musical eulogy for Conor, is remarkable. Clapton himself holds his pain behind closed eyes through most of the song, seeming to channel his anguish into total focus on his performance. His band, meanwhile, can’t look at either him or the audience; they play with precision and a deep reverence while staring at their instruments or the floor, trying to stay with their leader and honor his commitment to the song while holding their own emotions in check.

The rehearsal footage doesn’t add much; just the band going through their set to a mostly empty room as the production staff work on the lighting and camera set-up around them, with the only set list differences from the broadcast version being the inclusion of “Circus” and “My Father’s Eyes” and the exclusion of “Old Love” and "Rollin’ & Tumblin’,” which close out the broadcast version.

Unplugged was a milestone release for Eric Clapton. This Deluxe Edition, while not adding a great deal of material to the original CD release, at least combines the audio and video components in a single package, while offering a handful of interesting outtakes.

Rating: A-

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