Eric Clapton was once “god,” the best rock and blues guitarist on the planet, adored by fans of his time with John Mayall, Cream, Derek and the Dominos and then his solo career.
Now, aside from the recent nonsense of joining in with Van Morrison in a petulant wail against pandemic restrictions, and touting unscientific and dangerous claims about fertility against vaccines, he is a figure who seems to divide blues fans.
This is clear whenever you see something about him posted on blues-related social media – the negative reaction can be visceral. There’ll be those who won’t even bother to read this article and will simply react to the mere suggestion that Clapton’s Unplugged could be a classic blues album.
Others will take a more considered approach to Clapton, understanding his lifelong obsession with the blues and the contribution he made to the genre during the 1960s when the genre was in steep decline in the United States because of the rise of pop, rock’n’roll, soul and R&B. That was B.B. King’s view, who said that he and Clapton had been friends since they met in the 60s and that Clapton “plays blues better than most of us.”
The album the two made in 2000, Riding with the King, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album, shows two men in love with the blues, their music making flowing effortlessly off each other. And, of course, the admiration was not one way, Clapton thanking King “for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave to me as a player over the years,” and hailing Live at the Regal as the album which got him started with the blues.
Clapton was also very close with Muddy Waters, whom he described as “the father figure I never really had” and his greatest influence. His playing was also deeply influenced by Robert Johnson, who amazed him with his guitar chops and singing. “There were very few people on record who sounded like they were singing from the heart,” said Clapton, “there’s no comparison, this guy’s got finesse. His touch was extraordinary. Which is amazing in light of the fact that he was simultaneously singing with such intensity.” Clapton’s 2004 album, Me and Mr Johnson plays tribute to his lifelong fascination with Johnson.
So, given the association Clapton has had over the years with the greats in the blues Pantheon and their high opinion of his blues contribution, it’s hard to understand how he gets dismissed so readily by some blues fans. Clapton himself has said of his commitment to the blues, “I recognise that I have some responsibility to keep the music alive.”
All that said, on to Unplugged as one of our “Great Blues Albums.”
Playing his Martin 000-42 acoustic guitars, and accompanied by a small group of musicians, including Andy Fairweather Low and Chuck Leavell, Clapton performed the songs for a small audience in England in 1992 at a particularly emotional time for him. His four-year-old son Conor had died four months previously after falling from his 53rd floor apartment. Tears in Heaven – clearly not a blues song in form, but arguably in content – was one of the fourteen songs on the original album, which became 20 in the 2013 remastered version.
The album won three Grammys at the 1991 awards and became the bestselling live album of all time, and Clapton’s bestselling album, selling 26 million copies worldwide. It was released in August 1992 to wide critical acclaim and revitalized Clapton’s career.
The bulk of the setlist consists of traditional blues, including Big Bill Broonzy’s Hey Hey, Robert Johnson’s Malted Milk and Son House’s Walkin’ Blues. Songs from Jimmy Cos, Lead Belly, Muddy Water, Bo Didley, and Robert Cray, along with a couple of Clapton originals complete the set. One of these is an acoustic version of Layla which works surprisingly well.
Clapton breathes new life into these songs – his version of Jimmy Cox’s depression era song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out has become something of a definitive version, his Walkin’ Blues with its cool slide guitar recalls Robert Johnson’s version, and Muddy Waters Rollin’ and Tumblin’ still rocks as an acoustic number.
Although the blues songs here are all cover versions of old blues songs, aside from the fact that the album just sounds so good, the significance of the album is the effect it has had on acoustic blues music. Subsequent to Unplugged, during the 1990s, you see artists like Keb’ Mo’, Kelly Joe Phelps, Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Guy Davis all seeming to come to prominence. For sure, these and other great artists whose music was based on acoustic guitar had been plying their trade for some time before that – some for a long time, reaching back to the 60s – and had a loyal following. But Clapton’s Unplugged brought blues music – and acoustic blues – to a much wider audience and got a new generation of fans interested in these other artists and then also beginning to listen to the original artists as well.
Testimony to that is conversations I’ve had recently with professional acoustic artists who hail Unplugged as being formative in their awakening to the blues.
Plus, Unplugged stands the test of time. It’s an album anyone can listen to and hear a modern interpretation of the blues that is not dated and is hugely enjoyable. Purists may prefer that everyone listens to Lead Belly or Bill Broonzy, but for everyone else, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged is their way into appreciating the blues.
I’ve seen a few shows of varying quality during the pandemic restrictions of the past year. But none comes close to Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom gig. Granted, it wasn’t a live gig, although you kinda got that impression from the advance publicity.
But the quality of this pre-recorded show, the surprising setting, and Dylan’s performance was such that any initial gripes were quickly forgotten. Shot in black and white, mimicking a smoky down-at-heels club in the 1940s, Dylan was in full cabaret singer mode, all gestures and stances, singing positively tunefully.
Where was the raspy, near-croak we’ve become use to in recent years? Gone completely as he treated us to a romp through his early back catalogue – mainly 1960s and 70s with What Was It You Wanted from 1989’s Oh Mercy the most recent one covered.
When you go to a Dylan gig, you expect the songs you know and love to be completed re-reworked, sometimes so you can barely recognise them. Here with the backing of a young band playing largely acoustically – double bass, acoustic guitars, mandolin, accordion, occasional electric guitar and no percussion – the songs sounded fresh, instantly recognizable and utterly captivating. Especially with the man in such good voice, at times strumming a couple of arch-top acoustic guitars and blowing a tasteful harmonica.
The dim lighting and the black and white shooting lent a considerable amount of atmosphere to the show, with patrons sitting around tables being served drinks and – à la 1940s, smoking. No wonder the band had their masks on – presumably to shield from the cigarette smoke rather than the virus. Though, actually, I kinda suspect the cigarette smoke might have been faked.
It worked rather well, though. The only thing else needed, said one wag on the online comments, was a “bar room brawl off stage.”
Dylan at 80 still managed to look rather cool, with his white jacket or – my favourite and I want one – his black embroidered one. The man still has a decent head of hair, though the low light suitably concealed his creased, craggy features.
He kicked things off with When I Paint My Masterpiece, probably the best version of this song he’s done, followed by Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, before the exquisite Queen Jane, with Dylan standing at the mike, articulating the lyrics almost sweetly and the band paring things back to put the spotlight on the song and the singer.
I’ll Be Your Only Baby Tonight, musically was very cool, but I have to say, I felt rather uncomfortable about Dylan being flanked by two young women as he sang. Didn’t seem a good look. My feminist daughter, however, reckoned that the scene was supposed to subvert “the male gaze” (Google it!) – the women actors looked right into the camera all the time and not at Dylan. If so, it was clever work by Israeli-American director Alma Har’el, who did a superb job overall. Watch this song yourself for yourself and decide.
A few songs later we got What Was It You Wanted from 1989’s Oh Mercy, a quite beautiful acoustic version, with a little plaintive harmonica from Dylan, which brought out the yearning and pathos of the song. And that’s the thing about these arrangements – it helped you appreciate just how strong Dylan’s songs are, both lyrically and musically. In some concerts I’ve gone to in recent years, the songs were all but obscured by the rockabilly or rock’n’roll treatment.
He followed that with a tenderly sung Forever Young. I’ve always loved this song, but tonight, it seemed particularly poignant. That’s what we want for Dylan, for his songs, the albums, are so much a part of our history and we can’t bear to think of him aging. Because that means we’re aging too. And although we want it to be true, that he and we could stay forever young, we know, at 80, we’ll not have him performing and writing songs for much longer.
It was nice to get a song from John Wesley Harding in the mix, the lyrically opaque Wicked Messenger, whose title is based loosely on a verse from the biblical book of Proverbs. The obscurity of the lyrics was nicely emphasized by Dylan either being hidden entirely by the guitar player or almost completely in shade.
The final song, I hope we can’t read too much into – It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, sung with some deliberation, the band following Dylan’s careful enunciation, and highlighting the lyrics much more than the jaunty version on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home.
Suddenly it really was all over, just 48 minutes. But 48 utterly absorbing and totally entertaining minutes. The good thing is, having paid my $25, I can watch it again a time or two over the next couple of days.
When I Paint My Masterpiece Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go MIne Queen Jane Approximately I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues Tombstone Blues To Be Alone With You What Was It You Wanted Forever Young Pledging My Time Wicked Messenger Watching The River Flow It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
“Rapidly becoming a British national treasure.” Blues Blast Magazine
Mark Harrison’s sixth album, The Road to Liberty, showcases his adept story-telling and clever lyrics, his knack for composing a catchy tune, and his never-less-than-engaging performance as a singer and guitarist. He’s hard to pigeon-hole, not quite blues, but blues never far away, somewhere in the folk-blues-country continuum.
That’s not a bad thing, given the unique talent that he is, able to write songs that transport you to another place, to make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – to entertain you.
Harrison is an English singer songwriter, who plays a nifty acoustic guitar, who has been delighting audiences over the last ten years with his carefully crafted songs and witty banter. He was a late starter as a professional musician, not picking up a guitar and singing until his fifth decade, but he’s made up for lost time, touring the country and supporting such artists as The Holmes Brothers and Doug MacLeod, along with major festival and radio appearances. He’s also released now six albums, all of which have been eagerly received and critically acclaimed. If you haven’t come across him as yet – put that right straight away and grab yourself a CD or download.
You could start with The Road to Liberty, a double album of 21 songs, featuring Harrison and his two bandmates, Charles Benfield on double bass and Ben Welburn on drums and percussion.
I got chatting to Mark about the new album and his musical journey. His previous albums, he told me, had been the “standard studio procedure of layer upon layer,” but that the band had felt that this album ought to reflect much more Mark’s live performances – “this business of singing your songs, standing up in a booth with headphones on, when do you ever do that in real life?”
A double album is a little unusual these days, and I wondered how that had come about. Mark said that he’d a lot of songs in the bank, so to speak, and, although he thought they’d only choose the standard 12 or 13 songs, the band like the lot of them, “so we thought, well, let’s just record them all. So, I’ve actually cleaned out everything I’ve got now!”
I remarked on the quality of the album’s cover and artwork – so often you get flimsy, pared back packaging these days and you wonder why you didn’t just buy the download. The Road to Liberty, however, feels quite luxurious.
“Well, it’s Andy Hall, who’s done everything for me from the very beginning. He and Rick, his business partner, ran a website called Blues in London when I got started, which was a sort of central thing for the blues scene in London. That’s how I met them, doing jams down at the Green Note in Camden. So when it came to do my first album, they said they’d like to do the cover. And so, it’s gone on from there and Andy does really wonderful things that make everything look great.”
The album has more of a band feel about it than some of Harrison’s previous albums. Charles Benfield and Ben Welburn, Mark’s two band members, are very talented musicians, whom he met on the blues jam scene at the very beginning of his career. They’ve been playing as a settled trio since around 2017, and sound a very solid and tight little outfit.
Mark does some solo gigs as well, depending on the venue and the promoter’s budget, but increasingly, it’s the trio. “I’d say it’s more fun when it’s the three of us.”
The album’s title, The Road to Liberty, is intriguing and one reviewer rather poetically suggested that it describes a “set of observations set to the heartbeat of humanity which exemplify the struggle of narrative freedom being taken seriously.” The phrase occurs in the song Restless Mind, a clever, jaunty number, with the band in full flight, which takes an ironic look at what happens when you let your mind become too restless.
“Well, I always take a phrase from a song, not a song title. So all the albums have a phrase or a word that is in one of the songs as the title of the album. I felt that I wanted a title that reflected some upbeat message because, in my opinion, the music generally speaking has an upbeat message in the words, even if it might not appear that at first glance.”
For sure, the tunes in the album are very upbeat, very optimistic sounding. At times they almost seem to belie the lyrics, a deliberate ploy by Harrison: “I’ve always felt that the music itself is uplifting or is meant to be, so you have perhaps a contrast between what is often a jolly tune, with what might be called slightly acerbic lyrics. And I think that’s probably where I’m at.”
As you listen to the songs, you’ll find yourself in turns amused, intrigued and puzzled. I asked Mark about one song in particular, which is great fun and had piqued my curiosity, Don’t Let the Crazy Out of the Bag (Too Soon).
“A woman friend told me a little while ago that if she was in a successful relationship that was going well, she would often find that the worst possible thing she could say would pop into her mind. And yet knowing that, she would find herself saying it! And then there came a point where she got engaged. But later I noticed on social media that she was no longer engaged. So I asked her about it. And she wrote, ‘I think I let the crazy out of the bag too soon.’
“And that one does have a happy ending by the way! It’s like a lot of things, you come across a phrase and you think it has a much more general application perhaps than the context in which you’ve heard it. And so, as well as that being a bit of fun, I thought that was a suitable subject for a song.”
Mark Harrison’s songs typically address a wide variety of situations and snapshots of life – on this album, you’ll find a song about the life of Skip James, Skip’s Song, a song about working in a factory in an economic downturn, Toolmaker’s Blues, and one about a poor guy on trial before the judge, All Rise. As you listen to this set of all-original songs, you can’t help but pick up echoes of blues music. Harrison plays a National resonator and has a cool kind of bluesy, picking style. You might expect him to throw in a few old blues songs, but that tends not to be what he does.
Mark told me that when he first got started, he tried to work out a few old blues tunes on the guitar, but found he couldn’t do it. The second song on the album, Everybody Knows, is a nice guitar-driven song in a Mississippi John Hurt style, but Mark said it was actually the first song he wrote using the 12-string and he had thought at the time he was working out Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. “So the short answer is, I don’t do covers of them because I’m not capable!” (Unlikely, Mark is an accomplished guitarist.)
Mark’s back story as a musician is a remarkable one. He’d played guitar seriously in his youth, but only returned to it much later in life, about eleven years ago.
“I got this guitar shortly before I started in 2010. And that transformed everything. I had absolutely no intentions at all of launching it into anything. I didn’t expect to make an album or do a gig, and so for a little while, I just went and played a little bit at jams and it was a social thing. But the London blues jam scene is pretty good – a bunch of really good people and very high standards. So then, I’d written some songs and I thought I’d commit them to posterity and that was the first album [the acclaimed Watching the Parade]. I had no inkling of what would happen. It sounded okay to me. I put it out there a little bit cautiously and I got a few gigs and it built from there. So it’s a rare case of something in life that’s just taken on its own momentum. And it hasn’t been a big struggle!
“One of the advantages of the changes in society in my lifetime is that it doesn’t matter what age you are with music. In fact, the acts most likely to sell tickets and do main stage at festivals probably have an average age that’s pushing 70! Most theatre listings of music and festivals are all about nostalgia. So, the idea that you couldn’t be doing this at a relatively older age, that doesn’t exist. Which is pretty good.
“And people with my musical background would tend to be what you call old school, which is that you’re not going to go out there and inflict yourself on people then unless you’ve worked out something that’s of a really high level professionally. So I carry that sort of attitude with me.”
We chatted a bit about the economics of being a musician and how embarking on a career or going out as a professional musician is a pretty uncertain enterprise.
“It’s pretty obvious to anyone involved that the demise of recorded music as a commercial enterprise has had an enormous effect. In the past you could shift a lot of albums, but by the time I got started, that ship had sailed. So you need to form your plans realistically with that in mind. I do really pretty well for someone that wasn’t established many years ago. But in terms of making money, nobody is.
“I used to listen to radio when there were a limited number of radio shows and I would buy albums straight off hearing people on, say, the Paul Jones show and others. Now I’ve been on those shows subsequently, and I think in the past, if you got played there, let alone did a session, like we have, that would have led to very significant sales of your albums. But these days it doesn’t. So there’s no point complaining about that. That had already kicked him by the time I got going. So it’s a question of understanding the environment you’re operating in and being realistic. There’s no point being in music if you’re going to complain about not being famous.
“For me, it’s going out and playing, the audiences, the people that come up and talk to you, the places that you go, the experiences that you have.”
Part of Mark’s story is acquiring a guitar previously owned by Eric Bibb, whom he admires a great deal.
“I started to listen to music again about 2000 after a long time of not listening to anything. I saw in the gig listing of one of the papers, “Eric Bibb, Sublime Bluesman.” I thought, I didn’t know there were any sublime bluesmen still alive. So, I went to see him several times and I thought what he was doing was great. And it showed you that you could get a really great big sound with a band that had an acoustic guitar leading it, not an electric guitar and someone pulling faces.
“Years later, I went to a shop in London – it doesn’t exist anymore – The London Resonator Centre and I thought I’d buy one of these guitars. They got me trying out some of the new Nationals, which are great. And then the guy running the shop said, ‘Ah, the way you play, you might like this that’s just come in.’ And he said that Eric Bibb had just brought it in. So I ended up getting that and subsequently I’ve met Eric numerous times, and he always hails me whenever I go to one of his gigs – “Mark!” from across the room.”
If you like acoustic blues music, you’re almost bound to appreciate Mark Harrison, even though his music can’t be pinned down to simply that genre.
“I think that I’m in the tradition of those guys that called themselves songsters. Back in the twenties and thirties, they would do a whole variety of stuff. I mean, if you listen to the full output of Robert Johnson, very little of it, actually, is what would now be called blues. Variety and entertainment were the key factors. So I’m in that tradition.
Entertainment is certainly what you get with a Mark Harrison performance and with a Mark Harrison album. But it’s not just entertainment. He’s a thoughtful artist who appraises life’s peaks and valleys and converts this into stories with wry and incisive lyrics, but never short of compassion. He’s a unique talent and one you ought to be familiar with.
It’s been a great year so far for blues albums. Whether it’s acoustic blues, blues rock, traditional, modern, gospel or funk, there’s been something for everyone. We’ve chosen our top 15 albums – arranged in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Enjoy!
Selwyn Birchwood, Living in a Burning House
Fresh modern blues, featuring Birchwood’s bluesy voice, and top-notch guitar and lap steel playing. Thirteen original energetic songs with a blues rock sound, with a jazzy feel at times. Birchwood is quite a talent and this is his best album yet.
Joanna Connor, 4801 South Indiana Avenue
An absolutely top-notch set of blues rock that clearly has a Chicago blues heritage, yet sounds completely fresh and modern. Connor’s killer slide guitar and vocals are augmented by some characteristically fine guitar work by Joe Bonamassa and a tight-knit top-class band. Superbly produced, and packed with raw, high-energy musicianship. Check out our interview with Joanna here.
Paul Cowley, Long Time Comin’
Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, with a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition. Long Time Coming, has 12 acoustic blues songs, 5 traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blin Willie McTell and 7 originals. It’s outstanding, and hugely enjoyable. Here’s our great interview with Paul.
Steve Cropper, Fire It Up
Legendary guitarist, songwriter and record producer delivers his first proper solo album since 1969. Thirteen well-constructed songs, with a terrific band, excellent guitar work by Cropper and an outstanding vocal performance from Roger Reale. Check out our full review here.
Guy Davis, Be Ready When I Call You
Great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. More than just blues musically and most of the songs have a shard-hitting strong social commentary going on. An outstanding release from Davis and M.C. Records. Guy spoke to us about this important album.
Robert Finlay, Sharecropper’s Son
Finlay’s rasping, soulful voice is distinctive and memorable, and shines on this terrific album of blues, gospel, soul, and R&B. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the album evokes Finlay’s life of struggle and determination. Finlay is one of those musicians helped by the Music Maker Relief Foundation and his first album only appeared in 2016. Auerbach says simply, “Finlay is the greatest living soul singer.” To judge by this album, he’s not wrong.
Chris Gill, Between Midnight and Loiuse
A stripped-down recording, just two microphones, a small amp, no overdubs and a lot of love for the blues. Relax on the back porch as Gill takes his acoustic, resonator and cigar box and performs nine originals and Virgil Brawley songs. It’s finger picking good, good old-fashioned acoustic blues played with considerable depth and passion.
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings
A rewarding set of songs from Hiatt and Dobro master Jerry Douglas. Hiatt taps a rich vein of song-writing skill and experience in a mixture of ballads and blues songs with compelling stories. The combination of Hiatt’s always interesting voice, Douglas’s jaw-droppingly good guitar work and eleven good tunes makes for a hugely enjoyable experience.
Kelly’s Lot, Where and When
Kelly Zirbes’s band, which hails from the Los Angeles area has been plying its trade for the last 25 years, mostly as a blues rock outfit. Where and When sees them stripping things back, performing 11 acoustic blues songs with resonator-slide guitar and Zirbes’s gritty voice to the fore. It’s fabulous stuff, six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that evoke the blues of a bygone age and five reworked traditional blues songs, including a terrific version of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days
Wonderful set of bluesy gospel songs from gospel singer King 50 years after she stopped performing and recording professionally. It’s a funky, blues, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare, an album full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all. Check out our great interview with the wonderful Ms King.
New Moon Jell Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol 2
Classic old-school recording from a kind of blues super-group, the musicians sitting together in a circle in the studio and playing amongst the microphones. It’s a joyous exploration of the blues, with great heart and soul A fine tribute to Jim Dickinson and a huge treat of an album for all of us. Our full review is here.
Gary Moore, How Blue Can You Get
If you buy one blues album this year, this is it. A set of eight songs, some previously unheard and unreleased, from the Moore family archives, will move you, excite you, get you on your feet, and make you regret all the more that Gary Moore is no longer with us. Released on the tenth anniversary of Moore’s passing How Blue Can You Get proves, if there was ever any doubt, that Gary Moore was a master of the blues. Our full review is here.
Reverend Shawn Amos, The Cause of It All
“I want to bring the ancestors into the room,” said Amos of this set of blues classics by the likes of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. The songs are stripped to the bone, with Amos on harmonica and vocals, and his longtime collaborator Chris “Doctor” Roberts on guitar. Check out Amos’s hair-on the-back-of-your-neck-raising vocal performance on the wholly acoustic Hoochie Coochie Man.
Alabama Slim, The Parlor
Approaching his 82nd birthday, close to seven feet tall, and typically dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, Alabama Slim has given us a perfect, classic blues album which recalls the boogie of John Lee Hooker. It’s delicious, pared-back, but tasty fare from a man whose soulful and oh-so-cool vocals are served up in a wrap of sweet guitar groove from Little Freddie King, Slim’s cousin. Check out our full review here.
Christina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely
Sit up and take notice of Cristina Vane, whose Nowhere Sounds Lovely is a terrific amalgam of blues, bluegrass and country – a thoroughgoing bluesy Americana, you might say. Whatever way you want to describe it, she’s a wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. We reviewed this excellent album here.