Unplugged by Eric Clapton

November 28, 2009

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.


Me and Mr. Johnson by Eric Clapton

November 28, 2009

Robert Johnson may not have invented the blues, but he remains one of its most influential practitioners. His box set, The Complete Recordings gathers all of his material into one place and should be required listening for any fan of rock or blues music.

Eric Clapton’s career was grounded in the blues and particularly the music of Robert Johnson. His catalog is sprinkled with his songs.

I am a big fan of both the blues and Eric Clapton, so it was with a great deal of anticipation that I awaited Clapton’s cover album of Robert Johnson material. It seemed like a natural. Somehow Me and Mr. Johnson didn’t work out as I expected. It was just too slick and professional. Johnson was passionate, intense and a great technician, but he was definitely not slick.

The CD cover pictures a stark Clapton, seated in front of a picture of Johnson, holding an acoustic guitar. If he had taken the cover to heart he probably would have been better off. Johnson recorded with just his 12 string guitar, while Clapton brings along his band. When you add in the production it veers away from the original intent and style of the music. I wish Clapton would have tackled the songs with just his guitar and let the chips fall where they may.

I have no doubt that Clapton loves the music and truly tries to make it his own and there are a few tracks that rise above the rest. “Traveling Riverside Blues” is played as traditional 12 bar blues. “They’re Red Hot” was an unusual Johnson song as he did not use a 12 string guitar, and it seems to fit Clapton’s style well. “Hellhound On My Trail” is one of the best blues songs of all time and Clapton interprets it well as his vocal presents the intense imagery of the lyrics.

“Love In Vain” is representative of the albums problems as Clapton just gives a bland performance. Compare his version with that of The Rolling Stones on their Let It Bleed album and it just does not measure up.

Clapton had successfully covered a number of Johnson songs in the past but this many together just seemed to be beyond him. What he did create was a technically proficient but ultimately sterile album. If you truly want to hear the music of Robert Johnson interpreted well check out Peter Green’s Me & The Devil and The Robert Johnson Songbook because he got it right.

Maybe Me and Mr. Johnson will serve as an introduction to the music of an important blues legend but as an interpretive effort it leaves a lot to be desired.


Reptile by Eric Clapton

November 28, 2009

Beginning with 1989’s Journeyman and continuing through 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson, Eric Clapton rotated studio albums consisting of blues covers—including one with B.B. King (Riding With The King)—with rock/blues fusion releases that boasted many original compositions.

Reptile, released in March of 2001, returned producer Simon Climie and many of the band members from Clapton’s Pilgrim project, yet the results were very different and the music was ultimately superior. Clapton managed to keep Climie’s inclination to program instruments under control. The drum machines were turned down, the synthesizers used more judiciously. It all added up to an intimate, very good album.

Andy Fairweather-Low returned as the second guitarist as did Joe Sample, who handled the keyboards on eight of the tracks. The inspired addition was the use of the legendary soul group, The Impressions, as back-up singers for ten of the fourteen tracks. They complemented Clapton’s vocals well and provided a fullness of sound that was unique among his releases.

As with many of his non-blues studio albums, sometimes Clapton’s guitar playing disappears into the background and the solos are much too short. Still, what is present is representative of his talent. Two instrumentals bookend the album. The title song has a smooth, almost jazz feel to it while “Son & Sylvia” contains some nice acoustic work.

The old Ray Charles tune, “Come Back Baby,” is given a superior treatment. Billy Preston’s joyful organ playing drives the song along and combines well with Clapton’s bluesy guitar lines while his near-gospel vocal floats above the mix. “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” is a rare, successful cover of a Stevie Wonder composition.

“Superman Inside” and the J.J. Cale tune “Travelin’ Light” find him in rock mode while his own composition, “Believe In Life,” is a quiet love song.

Reptile presents the modern studio Clapton at his best and while it may not contain the guitar pyrotechnics that I would necessarily like to hear, it is still a satisfying album.


Do You Wanna Dance/Please Let Me Wonder 45 by The Beach Boys

November 28, 2009

By early 1965 Brian Wilson was beginning to move away from his signature surf and car songs. His studio techniques were now almost fully developed and his classic album release, PET SOUNDS, was a little over a year away.

“Do You Wanna Dance” was a remake of the old Bobby Freeman hit. The vocals are heavily layered and the tempo is upbeat. In the middle of it all is a rare Dennis Wilson lead vocal that made the A side of one of their single releases. It would be a moderate hit for them at the time reaching number 12 on the National charts. It remains one of my favorite releases from this era of their career.

“Please Let Me Wonder” was the flip side. It is a gentle ballad with wonderful harmonies and is more in line with what Brian Wilson had in mind in so far as The Beach Boys musical future was concerned. It would only reach 52 on the singles charts but was a nice counterpoint to “Do You Wanna Dance.”

As a collector, the bonus was the fact that it came with a picture sleeve that catches the group at their best.


Odessey and Oracle (Revisited): The 40th Anniversary Concert (DVD) by The Zombies

November 26, 2009

The Zombies were a British Invasion band that produced some memorable music but ultimately had very poor timing. They are best remembered for two excellent singles, “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” which made the American top ten in late 1964 and early 1965.

The bad timing occurred in 1967 when the band broke up after recording (yet before the release of) what would become their last album. The work sat on the shelf at Columbia Records until producer Al Kooper lobbied for its release. Still unconvinced Columbia issued it on their small Date Label. Odessey & Oracle is now recognized as one of the best albums of the late sixties. The hit single, “Time Of The Season,” is a psychedelic classic and still receives airplay.

The Zombies resisted all overtures to reunite. Keyboardist Rod Argent would form his own group and Colin Blunstone would go on to enjoy a credible solo career. Guitarist Paul Atkinson become an A&R man for Columbia and RCA, passing away in 2004. Drummer Hugh Grundy would run a horse transport business. Bass player Chris White wrote Argent’s hit song, “Hold Your Head Up,” and would act as a producer.

In 1997 all five Zombies reunited for two songs at a Blunstone solo show. This led to Argent and Blunstone touring together as Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies. Finally they recruited three new musicians and began performing under The Zombies moniker.

March 7-9 found the four living Zombies reuniting for three concerts celebrating the fortieth Anniversary of Odessey & Oracle, with new guitarist Keith Airey filling in for the deceased Atkinson.

Let me say that Odessey & Oracle {Revisited}: The 40th Anniversary Concert is well worth the wait as you are transported back in time to enjoy the first complete live performance of one of the masterful albums of the psychedelic era.

The concert is divided into two parts. The current Zombies touring band presents a nine-song set complete with such early material as “I Love You,” “Sticks and Stones,” and “Can’t Nobody Love You.” Blunstone’s voice still has incredible range and Argent remains an expert keyboardist.

Part two includes an introduction by All Kooper which is followed by the original Zombies performing all twelve tracks of Odessey & Oracle in sequence. Songs such as “A Rose For Emily,” “Hung Up On A Dream,” “Friends Of Mine,” and the eternal classic “Time Of The Season” are resurrected in all their late sixties glory. It’s good to see Chris White on board here, particularly, as he composed seven of the twelve tracks. The band concludes the evening with “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There.”

Also included in this package is a thoughtful interview with Blunstone, White, and Argent which examines the creation and recording of the album in detail.

Forty years is a long time and its nice to see that The Zombies have closed the musical circle by finally bringing Odessey & Oracles to life. The DVD is well produced, professionally recorded, and long overdue.


Bat Out Of Hell: The Original Tour (DVD) by Meat Loaf

November 26, 2009

Legend has it that sometime during the mid-sixties Marvin Lee Aday, a football player at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas Texas, was called a meat loaf by his coach after a particularly inept performance. The football career ended but the nickname remained.

By the mid-seventies Meat Loaf had acted in the play Hair, released an album with Stoney Murphy, provided vocals for Ted Nugent, and acted in the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Most importantly he had met Jim Steinman at a casting call and the two began planning an album together. Their vision finally came to fruition in the fall of 1977.

Bat Out Of Hell has now sold in excess of forty million copies and is ranked among the top ten best selling albums of all time. It continues to sell close to 200,000 copies a year. I am still amazed that this inexperienced duo could entice Todd Rundgren to produce the album plus attract pianist Roy Bittan, sax player Edgar Winter and drummer Max Weinberg to lend support. Even the cover art by Richard Corben is some of the best in rock history.

Eagle Rock Entertainment has now reached back into the archives to release a DVD titled Bat Out Of Hell: The Original Tour which presents Meatloaf and keyboardist/songwriter Steinman at a June 1978 concert stop in support of their release. Originally filmed for the German Rockpalast television show, it has sat on the shelf for three decades.

The DVD checks in at only 85 minutes and is not their complete performance. The cover songs, “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Johnny B. Goode” were performed that evening but are not included. Also missing are the Bat Out Of Hell ballads “Heaven Can Wait” and “For Crying Out Loud.”

What are included are the other five songs from the original album plus an instrumental introduction by Steinman titled “Great Boleros Of Fire” and a final reprise of “All Revved Up With No Place To Go.”

Meat Loaf live is more of a performer than a singer. His vocals sometime wander off key but he gets by with his dramatic showmanship. Karla DeVito, who has a great rock voice, is the female foil taking over for Ellen Foley who sang on the original release.

“Bat Out Of Hell,” “You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth,” “All Revved Up With No Place To Go,” “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” and “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” all receive dramatic and extended performances. It is really performance art within a rock concert setting.

There is also an interesting interview with Steinman and the Loaf which was recorded for German television at the time. The picture quality is limited by the recording equipment of the day but is still more than passable.

All in all Bat Out Of Hell: The Original Tour is an interesting look into the history of one of rock’s enduring albums.


Live In Manila (DVD) by Journey

November 26, 2009

Arnel Pineda became an international sensation when Journey interviewed and ultimately hired him as their new lead singer based on a series of YouTube videos.

He participated in their 2008 Revelation project which included a disc of new material, a disc of re-recorded classics, and a live DVD. It was immediately apparent to me that Journey had made the right decision as Pineda’s voice exhibited clarity, flexibility, and a range that few singers possess. Journey’s songs are difficult to sing and he was more than up to the task.

The DVD presented him as a little wooden on stage and definitely younger than the other group members and so he looked out of place. His stage demeanor has since improved 100% and it appears that he has now settled in comfortably as their lead singer. While he is obviously still younger than his bandmates, it is less noticeable. I chalk this up to the fact I have gotten more used to him, and that he does such a good job it becomes less of a focal point.

On March 14, 2009 Journey traveled to Manila in the Philippines which is the homeland of Arnel Pineda. 30,000 fans would turn out for their concert which is chronicled on this two disc, two hour plus DVD set.

Live In Manila captures Journey at what they do best which is presenting some of the best power pop/rock in music history. The 25 tracks here include 18 of their best known songs, plus seven more from their last release.

“Faithfully,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Separate Ways,” “Open Arms,” “Anyway You Want It,” and a host of others exhibit a freshness and energy despite having been performed for decades. Many of the songs are extended, which gives Neal Schon room to work his guitar wizardry. Dean Castronovo assumes lead vocal chores on three of the tracks and I am always amazed what a fine vocal instrument he possesses.

The video quality is crystal clear and the sound is excellent as well. It was filmed with a 4K high definition camera which has a resolution that exceeds 35 mm film. My only criticism is they did not release the concert in a Blu-ray format, but such is life.

Journey was formed in 1973 and Live In Manila clearly proves there is a lot of life left in them despite the passage of time. There may not be many surprises but they do what they do better than most of their contemporaries past and present. Hopefully The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame voters will view a copy of this latest release.