Hands-On Review:Eric Clapton Continues the Tribute

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Sessions with Robert J: Eric Clapton Continues the Tribute
by Adam St. James


Eric Clapton is amazing. But it's not his guitar playing that is so mind-blowing - though he's certainly no slouch. It's his permanence. The ongoing reign of supremacy that Clapton enjoys just becomes more undeniable, and he becomes more ubiquitous, with each passing year. More than three decades since his old friends from Liverpool made any meaningful music; more than 25 years since old pals Jagger/Richards made a record that mattered, Eric Clapton continues not only to score hits and sell countless truckloads of albums, but to put out records - make that products - that ooze with depth, style, and substance.


Sessions for Robert J is the perfect example. The just released CD/DVD package expands on EC's still-practically-new 2004 tribute to Robert Johnson, Me and Mr. Johnson. Clapton has never failed to give credit to the mysterious Delta bluesman. Throughout his career Eric has held the name Robert Johnson aloft for all once and future disciples to investigate and discover. Forty-some years after he'd first gained world-wide fame as a blues guitarist par excellence, he finally decided to honor his old favorite with an entire CD of his music. And here he is again, less than 12 months later, with even more of RJ's tunes and - better yet - a DVD of great studio performance and behind-the-scenes footage.

Sessions with Robert J: Eric Clapton Continues the Tribute
The CD
The CD in this package itself is pretty cool. While Johnson - who died at the age of 27 in 1938 - played solo, Clapton remakes most of his tunes with full band. And those tunes groove, thanks in no small part to his top-notch backing musicians. With him on guitar is Doyle Bramhall II, who has graced most of EC's live and studio appearances for the past five years or so. Hammond organ is provided by the inimitable Billy Preston (who here remembers his funky hit "Nothin' From Nothin'"?). Piano player Chris Stainton is thankfully present, as is the dynamic rhythm section of Nathan East on bass and Steve Gadd on drums.


The CD features 11 tracks, including "Sweet Home Chicago," "Milkcow's Calf Blues," "Terraplane Blues," "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day," "Stop Breakin' Down Blues," "Little Queen of Spades," "Traveling Riverside Blues," "Me And The Devil Blues," "From Four Until Late," "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," and "Ramblin' On My Mind." Only about half of these tunes were represented on the Me and Mr. Johnson CD, and these are all new recordings, captured during the DVD sessions.


The DVD: Session I
The DVD is broken into four main parts - four separate performances actually - plus additional behind the scenes footage. "Session I" captures Clapton and band laying down tracks live in the studio in England. It begins with Eric getting out of the right side of a shiny silver Porsche, and it took me a minute to realize that - being in England - he was getting out of the driver's seat. He enters what looks like a substantial country estate where his band is waiting, and Nathan East's thumping bass line can already be heard as Clapton exits his car.


Session I includes five full-band tracks, including: "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," "They're Red Hot," "Hell Hound On My Trail," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "When You Got A Good Friend." The Session lasts just under 30 minutes, and the multi-camera shoot shows us the studio jam from numerous wide and close-up angles. Clapton stands at the center of the room, playing one of his "Crash" Strats and an old Gibson hollowbody and singing into a huge studio mic suspended from a lengthy boom. He sings with conviction, takes a few cool solos, and lets his band shine as well. Bramhall adds slide to several cuts, and Preston and Stainton take a few choruses as well. Does your band play this tight? If you're trying to tighten up your own blues-rock act, get your bandmates together over some beer and pizza - or maybe some fish and chips - and watch this DVD just for the inspiration.


The DVD: Session II
Session II finds EC and his band performing on a big video soundstage in Texas, rehearsing for last summer's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas [Editor's note: Guitar.com provided pre- and post-festival coverage on the June 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival, click the links accompanying this article to read more.] EC and Bramhall are seated throughout this session, as they cover another handful of Robert Johnson classics. Included are "Milkcow's Calf Blues," "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day," "Stop Breakin' Down Blues," "Little Queen of Spades," and "Traveling Riverside Blues." Clapton even picks up a slide on "Judgement Day," and sings like a man possessed. This jam is more hard-driving than the studio atmosphere seen in Session I, and the excitement is clearly building for their impending festival appearance - at the packed Dallas Cotton Bowl.


The DVD: Session III
In Session III Clapton and Bramhall pair up as an acoustic duo in the very building where Johnson recorded his scant yet powerful oeuvre way back in the 1930s. The on-camera interaction between Clapton and his young charge is itself amusing and revealing as they chat briefly about the demands of fingerpicking and debate the method behind one of Johnson's riffs. Bramhall switches between a couple of resonator guitars during the performance, while Clapton plays what appears to be his signature model Martin dreadnought, the 000-42ECB, and his special edition Martin Bellezza Nera dreadnought.


Eric's mastery of the fingerpicking style is quite impressive, and shows clearly in this segment of the DVD. It serves as a great primer on acoustic blues playing, and the repertoire covered in this short jam would make for a great set at any appropriate gig. And despite the fact the two are performing in what appears to be a concrete-walled room, the sound is immaculate. The audio engineers on this session really nailed it, and the guitars ring with crystal clarity and body. Reverb didn't ruin this recording.


Clapton and Bramhall cover "Terraplane Blues," "Hell Hound On My Trail," "Me And The Devil Blues," "From Four Until Late," and "Love in Vain." The session lasts more than 18 minutes. I even watched the intro (from the DVD menu screen) to this session in its entirety because it so completely captured my attention in its simplicity and suspense: A man walks down the middle of some Dallas backstreet at night, while Robert Johnson sings "Crossroads." It looks like a scene from a movie, and you wonder if at some point, he's going to get mugged, or picked up by the cops, or hit by a car or something. I'll leave it to you to find out which.


The DVD: Session IV
Clapton plays solo in a suite overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, California, in Session IV of the DVD. Somehow I feel that I've seen photos of Clapton from this hotel suite before (it's a newer building on the bike path in Santa Monica, just south of the pier, for those who know the area), and it occurred to me that perhaps Clapton either has a lockout on this suite - just because he can afford it - or possibly because he's an owner or part-owner of the hotel itself. Hey, smart rock stars invest their money wisely, right?


Anyway, once you see the hotel on the DVD, you'll easily be able to track it down on your next walk or bike ride along that particular Southern California beach. And when you make that journey, keep your eyes open for signs of EC. You never know. (And if you run into him, engage him in hot rod conversation before you start picking his brains about guitars. You'll get further.)


Anyway, Eric plays "Ramblin' On My Mind," "Stones in My Passway," and "Love in Vain" (again) in this intimate setting. A framed photo of Robert Johnson looks over his shoulder from a nearby table. Eric again shows off some pretty advanced fingerpicking ability, as well as some great acoustic slide playing. He begins with his black acoustic (the Martin Bellezza Nera) in an open tuning while playing and singing "Ramblin." He then switches to a natural-finished Martin (possibly his signature model, the 000-42ECB, unless it's some vintage guitar he favors for sessions) and continues with some great slide playing on "Stones in My Passway."


A switch to a white-finished Martin in standard tuning leads EC to play another rendition of "Love in Vain," perhaps one of Johnson's most well-known (and most-covered) compositions. This session lasts just over 10 minutes, but it's informative in the sense that it fully displays Eric Clapton's mastery of his instrument undiluted by other musicians. He really has a handle on this thing, but then, he's been doing it awhile.


The DVD: Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes footage is brief, only five minutes worth, and it has more to do with the camera crews and the technical end of the shoots than "off-camera" looks at Clapton's world. One brief glimpse however pointed out an interesting personal note: Eric Clapton uses a PDA. He's wired. Cool.


Clapton fans should definitely get a hold of this package. The DVD footage shows Eric as an amicable, easy-going guy as he interacts between songs with the camera crew, his tech Lee Dickson, and his bandmates. It's full of great guitar-player close-ups from which players can certainly learn at least a couple of new riffs, turnarounds, or techniques. And it's just plain entertaining. Check out this DVD as soon as possible!


About the Author:
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam has worked as a guitar tech for Sammy Hagar, and is the author of several guitar and music instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.