"Clapton plays the blues."
Not exactly stop-the-presses news, is it? After all, Eric Clapton has been playing the blues (or something like them) since he started making records some 29 years ago with the Yardbirds. In that time, he's paid tribute to everyone from Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters to Albert King and Robert Cray, building a reputation as one of English rock's premier bluesmen in the process.
So it probably seems silly to say there's anything novel about the all-blues approach he adopts for "From the Cradle" (Reprise 45735, arriving in stores today). Cutting an album's worth of chestnuts by Freddie King, Lowell Fulson, Elmore James and the like is hardly the most obvious follow-up to the mainstream mega-success his "Unplugged" project brought, but then, even that album boasted tunes by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.
No, what makes "From the Cradle" special isn't what he does, but how. Instead of taking a typical blues-rock tack and stressing guitar solos above all else, Clapton places his emphasis on the songs. As a result, it's his singing, not his playing, that ultimately carries the album.
Don't get the wrong idea -- it's not as if Clapton has unplugged his guitar entirely. There are some stunning solos on "From the Cradle," ranging from the lean-but-eloquent break he takes in Lowell Fulson's "Sinner's Prayer" to the lengthy, lyrical workout he offers on Eddie Boyd's slow, sorrowful "Third Degree."
Even his most extended extrapolations know their place. There's none of the instrumental grandstanding that marked his days with Cream, nor is the listener left feeling that the song is simply a platform for the solo. If anything, Clapton's playing is shaped by the demands of the material, meaning that his ferocious slide work on the Elmore James classic "It Hurts Me Too" neatly echoes the emotional anguish of the lyric, while his fluid, hard-swinging solo on Freddie King's "I'm Tore Down" seems to spring directly from the loping groove beneath it.
Still, the most impressive thing about "From the Cradle" is the way it underscores Clapton's growth as a blues singer. Beginning with the gruff, glottal holler he uncorks on the album-opening "Blues Before Sunrise," there's a passionate intensity to Clapton's vocals that pushes these performances into a realm considerably beyond the well-mannered croon of his pop hits.
It isn't just the force of his singing that does it -- it's the conviction. You can hear the hurt in his voice as he fills Eddie Boyd's "Five Long Years" with all the heartfelt resentment of a wronged lover, and when he sings Jimmy Rogers' "Blues Leave Me Alone," he accurately conveys the desperation of one who wants to keep bad feelings at bay. Even the cheery acoustic guitars in "Motherless Child" don't seduce him into a superficial, pop-oriented performance; what he offers is hard-won country blues, not "Unplugged Vol. II."
Where he truly shows his mettle, though, is on the songs associated with Muddy Waters. Usually, when rock singers try to emulate the gut-level immediacy of Waters' delivery, they end up overstating the bluesman's mannerisms. But Clapton cuts to the heart of these songs, using a similarly measured phrasing to evoke the effortless intensity of Waters' best work. So not only does he deliver an exquisite "Hoochie Coochie Man," he brings enough confidence and depth to the music to make "From the Cradle" seem almost like a rebirth.
'FROM THE CRADLE'
To hear excerpts from Eric Clapton's "From the Cradle," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6169 after you hear the greeting.