Unplugged (Reprise)
Eric Clapton

By Mark Clark

As if there were any doubt, Unplugged is the album where Eric Clapton proves that (when the mood strikes) he can still sit down and flat outplay damn near any other guitarist alive.

It's 62 minutes of acoustic blues and ballads Clapton recorded for MTV's "Unplugged" concert series with a 7-piece backing ensemble.

With the exception of "Layla" — the single FM radio has been playing ad nauseum the past month or so — Clapton shuns hits, offering instead a feast of blues standards and originals. The effect is deceptively akin to dropping by Eric's pad one evening to discover God and a few of his pals jamming on a few of their favorite tunes. Clapton is relaxed but sharp and in fine voice. How loose are Clapton and friends? Well, their rendition of "San Francisco Bay Blues" includes a kazoo solo.

Highlights include "Signe," a chirpy instrumental which opens the set; "Hey, Hey," a Big Bill Broonzy number delivered in a style that betrays Clapton's love of Robert Johnson; and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," a smoking cover of the Jimmy Cox classic. Jeez, practically everything's a highlight.

The version of "Tears in Heaven" included here proves again that Clapton can carry off his material without the Big Production backdrop that has weakened his last several studio albums. If anything, this touching ballad (dedicated to Clapton's dead son) is more powerful in this more intimate setting. "Before You Accuse Me" also packs more punch here than the overproduced version that appeared on Journeyman.

And then there's "Layla," which I love despite radio's best efforts to burn me out on the song. Who can blame programmers, anyway? This sweet, jazzy recasting of what is arguably Clapton's all-time best song is an instant classic. I wonder which version he will play in concert now?

the King is correctly courted