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What If 'God' Was One of Us?

Eric Clapton and the problem of blues authenticity

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Fact: Eric Clapton can play circles around most bluesmen -- hell, most guitarists -- alive. This in and of itself means nothing. Fact: The blues are often brought upon oneself, but that doesn't make them any less powerful or potentially devastating. Fact: The blues is a style of playing defined by its limitations, much like a sonnet or sestina. Fact: It's not what's being said as much as the depth of emotion in which it's delivered. Fact: The blues was born almost entirely from African-American ancestry.

Also a fact: it's usually only white folk that have a problem with the blues, or, moreover, white people playing the blues. "Authenticity!" they scream. Don't make a play for the radio, that's anathema to authenticity; old black men playing old beat up guitars -- that's the blues. Robert Johnson! Lightnin' Hopkins! Whoever Fat Possum's dredged up lately! My, but that Mississip' Delta's still fertile!

Forget that Lightnin' Hopkins and Z.Z. Hill and a score of others often made a play for the airwaves. Forget that B.B. King guested on "Sanford and Son."

Not to knock any of the artists above; virtuosos all, they actually knew something a lot of Little Johnnie Taylors-come-lately don't: the blues don't turn to cheery reds and pinks once the royalty checks roll in. The (small-b) blues is everywhere: it's with the beancounter scotch addict in the McMansion at the edge of town, drunk before he takes his tie off. It's with that pro football player in Texas, fresh off signing a 25 million dollar contract. The blues were even with that white kid with the lanky hair clawing and screaming his way out of a broken home in Bellingham, Wash., before those same blues got so unbeatable that he saw no way out but putting a shotgun shell into his brain.

Fact: the blues, being a color, doesn't see any others.

Some folks write memoirs. Others take out their frustrations on a football field or baseball diamond. Still others enter this big round orb illegitimately, grow up thinking their grandparents are their parents, take a job as a postman, wheedle their way through high school and get their asses kicked out of art school before landing with a big old thump on the hard surface of Kingston and the West End, U.K. Unfamiliar with this specific shade of the blues? Meet Eric Clapton, aka Slowhand, aka "God." To some, he's the product of intelligent design, a white co-opter of an African-American blues tradition (and, to a notably lesser extent, reggae). To others, he's but another link in the evolution of a style of music that began with slave praise songs, field hollers, shouts, soon picked up instrumental stylings from European blues and mountain musics, and subsequently became the expressive mode of choice for those with little else but a song to sing and an old guitar.

Which is another way of saying, sure he's put out his share of forgettable work, but then so has B.B., Z.Z., and SRV.

Currently out on tour with a crack band that includes two keyboardists, Chris Stainton and Tim Carmon, and two guitarists, Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II, Eric Clapton is once again embracing the style of music that precipitated his fame. Hell, even Robert Cray, who is opening most of these shows, guests on a number of EC cuts each night, including the guitarist's extended version of Robert Johnson's legendary standard "Cross Road Blues" (since known to most as "Crossroads").

I know what you're thinking: a hotshit 20-some-year-old slide player from the American South, who, in turns out, was named after your most critically-acclaimed project -- Derek and the Dominos -- ever? Guitars-a-plenty? Jams that fade like smoke into the lights up in the high seats? What're you trying to do, EC? Relive your glory days?

Well, why not? As a song from Phil Collins-produced August not-so-memorably put it, it's indeed in the way that you use it, and Clapton, tired of playing sideman, decided 'round about 1975 he was ripe for a run at the charts. And so for a piece, the old G.O.A.T. cranked out some hits, lived comfortably, bought himself a fleet of sleek sports cars and a fancy palace in Antigua. He furthered his legendary status as a tomcatter of actresses and models, toned down his solos, and cut his long hair. Classic rock radio was born a few years later, allowing Slowhand to play stadiums again. The blues, it seemed, were those of a baby blue, summer sky variety.

Then, out of nowhere, those old thunderclouds rolled in again. In 1991, Clapton's pal and protégé Stevie Ray Vaughan died while the two were on tour together. A year later, Clapton's son Conor fell to his death from the 53rd floor of his mother's apartment building. (A song written not long after this tragedy, "Tears in Heaven," is often -- and somewhat unmercifully -- skewered in music circles. Outside of its saccharine arrangement, it might just be the truest blues song the man's ever written.)

By 1994, fresh off a period of grieving and total immersion in the music that helped make him famous, Clapton released From the Cradle, featuring a grab-bag of blues standards and staples. He followed this up with collaborations with Carlos Santana and B.B. King, and in 2004 released two records chock-full of covers by his longtime idol Robert Johnson. Me & Mr. Johnson and ,i>Sessions for Robert J (an album of outtakes from the first record) didn't necessarily sell like hotcakes, but critical reaction was strong, if muted. After all, blues needs more colors, not more covers, right?

Suitably emboldened, Clapton is currently readying the release of a collaboration with another of his idols, songwriter J.J. Cale, entitled The Road to Escondido. A mix of rock and blues and folk, it seems poised to do well in the market if for no other reason that the last two times Clapton's tapped Cale, he's literally struck gold (see "Cocaine" and "After Midnight.").

So what have we learned?

In sum: Clapton's guitar playing, invigorated by all the young bucks on stage with him, is sharper than it's been in years. He finally has stability in his personal life, and he's playing basketball arenas again. Furthermore, he's reached the level of fame where he can put out any whim that strikes him (see the Cale record), and not give a damn whether it makes a splash in the marketplace.

Some folks would say that's not the blues.

Some folks, like Eric Clapton, know that the blues are what you make of them, and that just because a man's whistling a jaunty tune, it doesn't mean the underlying melody is one of harmony.

Fact: Some folks sing the blues because if they don't, the blues will sing them.

Eric Clapton plays the Charlotte Bobcats Arena on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $45, $65 and $85, and are available by calling (800) 495-2295, or by going to www.charlottebobcatsarena.com.

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