In 1992, when Eric Clapton recorded an episode of MTV Unplugged at Bray Studios in London, the series featuring artists playing acoustic instruments was already well into its third season, having started in 1989 with a session by the band Squeeze. For MTV Unplugged, Clapton rearranged many of his classic songs and added a few blues classics. The record not only went on to sell 26 million copies, it became the best-selling live album of all time. It also earned Clapton six Grammy awards, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, (“Tears in Heaven”), Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Rock Male Vocal Performance, and Best Rock Song. It’s hard to top that, but when it comes to live albums, Eric Clapton has always set a sterling example of how to take well-known material and make it sound fresh and new.
Arguably the finest example of that is 1991’s 24 Nights, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall with all-star guest appearances from Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, Joey Spampinato and Buddy Guy, along with epic string arrangements by The National Philharmonic Orchestra that take songs like “Bell Bottom Blues” and allow them to catch air and soar in the most spectacular fashion. The record has great majesty and along with Unplugged, has become a master class on how to put together a live record.
Now, Eric Clapton presents his fifteenth live album, The Lady In The Balcony: Lockdown Sessions, and it’s a nuanced, understated and intimate representation of songs that he and others made famous. Frankly, it’s perhaps the most delicate offering he may have ever given the public, inside or out of the studio. It was recorded at Cowdray House, a grand old countryside estate in West Sussex, England. The estate is home to the Cowdray family, is world-famous for being the center of British polo, and has welcomed royalty from all over the world, including the Queen and the late Prince Philip.
There, in what appears to be Buck Hall, with its vaulted ceiling and minstrel’s gallery, he and his band set up shop and in a circle, tossed together a casual and yet often complex interpretation of a variety of music. He is joined by longtime sideman Nathan East, who played upright bass for most of the performances. East also provides his hallmark honeyed harmony sound to Clapton’s raspy blues vocals, and that balance runs throughout the recording. His playing never adds much bottom to the songs but rather gives them a border that keeps them on a solid glide path. Drummer Steve Gadd rarely uses anything but his hands and brushes on a kit that is tight and small. More than any member of the band, Gadd adds a human element to the sound that is both earthy and real. Rounding things out is the legendary Chris Stainton on keyboards. His style is much different than keyboardist Chuck Leavell’s (currently on tour with the Rolling Stones, and who famously took a solo turn on the Unplugged record with the song “Old Love” that made everyone, including Clapton, turn around in awe). With Stainton in the mix the keys have more of a honky tonk, toe tapper flair, and he brightens the music up in ways that make this feel like you are hearing it live from a pub in the village.
The record rose out of the COVID-19 lockdown and the need for Clapton to put his scheduled concerts on hold. They were to begin in May of this year, ironically at the Royal Albert. Looking for a viable alternative and hoping to keep his options open, he reconvened with his band to the English countryside and staged a concert with just the band and his wife Melia (who inspired the record’s name) in attendance. The project was overseen by Clapton’s longtime producer Russ Titelman (James Taylor, George Harrison, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones). Titelman, who also produced Unplugged, helps make this album more than just Unplugged 2 by introducing electric guitar later in the set, which brings just a bit of grit to the record and allows it to build and close strongly.
What I find the most rewarding about The Lady In The Balcony: Lockdown Sessions is how not a single song begins with an obvious opening. At times the music just casually spins into a song you know and does so with the kind of ease that only a group of world-class musicians who have played together as these musicians have could deliver. This is very much the case with the slow, cool smolder that becomes “After Midnight.” Then there’s the loosely-knitted “Bell Bottom Blues,” which sways with a kind of simple elegance that is hypnotic. While Clapton’s take on any blues classic like “Key To The Highway” is always welcome, it’s the addition of the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac tracks “Black Magic Woman” and “Man of the World” that bring a new and important musical reverence to bear. It’s really great to see so many artists deciding to tip their hat to guitarist and singer-songwriter Peter Green these days and broaden awareness of that band’s early work.
This record isn’t poised for the kind of greatness that Unplugged earned. The market has moved and the arrangements here are too wide open for radio. But they present some incredibly rich musicianship and some of the finest examples of Clapton’s acoustic guitar-playing abilities. While he doesn’t fly across the frets like someone like Ottmar Liebert, he brings forward performances that leave his fingertips with real feeling and flair, and he often carries the run time for each song well beyond their familiar studio versions. Those who follow his style of playing will want to spend time with the video release of the album, where a significant amount of attention is given to his hands and how he attacks the notes. For the fan who isn’t a musician but just loves the music, you’ll find the way that the concert is shot, interspersed with lush aerial shots of the grounds, to be perfectly in pace with the tempo of each tune.
I often wonder whether it would even be possible for someone of Eric Clapton’s stature to take a show like this on the road. It’s probably a logistical impossibility, and that’s why releases of this kind are such wonderful gifts from artists to their fans. More than Unplugged, across each available format, you’ll feel like you are sitting right there in the room with the band and Melia, captured with a sense of wonder, and for a moment, released from the ongoing uncertainty this pandemic has brought to our modern era.
- Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
- Golden Ring
- Black Magic Woman
- Man of the World
- After Midnight
- Bell Bottom Blues
- Key to the Highway
- River of Tears
- Rock Me Baby
- Believe in Life
- Going Down Slow
- Tears in Heaven
- Long Distance Call
- Bad Boy
- Got My Mojo Working