I don’t know what was going through Eric Clapton’s mind when he agreed to participate in the MTV Unplugged series, but the result was one of the finest solo albums of his career. It would reach number one on The American album charts and sell in excess of ten million copies. The album and its chart topping single “Tears In Heaven” would win a combined six Grammy Awards.
As the title of the MTV series suggests, this was a non-electric or acoustic Eric Clapton. His guitar is front and center and showcases him as one of the master craftsmen of his instrument. His clean technique and the sounds he draws from his Martin 000-42 are some of the best of his storied career.
The moving tribute to his son, “Tears In Heaven,” remains the most memorable track and continues to receive radio airplay seventeen years afters its release. This brilliant song aside, Unplugged is basically a blues album.
The opening instrumental, “Signe,” sets the tone as he establishes his smooth guitar runs which dominate the album. He follows with Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” which is a classic 12 bar blues song. Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey” is the type of slower blues tune he has always excelled at.
I recently reviewed his 2004 release Me and Mr. Johnson, which was a cover album of Robert Johnson material. I was not very kind as an electric Clapton, with a band behind him, presented a bland group of songs. Here he covers his “Walkin’ Blues” and “Malted Milk” and what a difference, as he remains true to the originals and his guitar playing rivals that of Johnson’s which is high praise indeed.
Two songs from his Layla album are very strong. “Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out” places Clapton’s guitar against a piano foundation with good results. “Layla” is completely re-worked. It now includes prominent keyboards and the tempo is slowed down.
Unplugged remains a consistently excellent release. Guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low and keyboardist Chuck Leavell provide solid support.
In some ways, it is easy to dismiss this release because it was so popular. But this time the album buying public got it right as it presents Eric Clapton playing the guitar as only he can. It remains one of the essential releases in his catalog.