Back in 1994, Eric Clapton released From the Cradle, an album consisting of only classic blues covers. It was a first for him, since he had never made an album completely dedicated to the genre, and it was met with a good amount of critical praise, even landing him a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. A performance from the resulting tour was captured in a special by Martin Scorcese, with the special being aptly titled Nothing But the Blues. Strangely this special was only aired once, with no subsequent home video release, but despite this the film has been somewhat accessible, due to various copies circulating on video sharing sites. Luckily both the film and soundtrack were remastered and given an official release this year, finally making the album accessible on streaming platforms and giving the film a well deserved 4K treatment. The story of this recording’s release is certainly strange, and after listening to the album the feeling kinda doesn’t go away. Honestly, how did they keep a gem like this buried for so long?
As previously mentioned, Clapton’s From the Cradle forms the basis of the setlist for Nothing But the Blues, meaning that almost all the tracks are covers of older Blues songs. Looking at the credits you can tell that Clapton is a deep lover of the genre, as the covers chosen span a wide variety of classic Blues artists. You have the heavy hitters, i.e. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson, but you also have the likes of Lowell Fulson, Tampa Red and Barbecue Bob too. On From the Cradle some of these covers were criticized for Clapton imitating the original vocals, and after a listen to it I can slightly agree. The covers are very respectful, but the flat recording of the vocals forces Clapton to eschew the wild energy of the originals, essentially trading innovation for austerity. Fortunately, the same cannot be said for Nothing But the Blues.
The live nature of this album is truly its biggest selling point. With it, Clapton and his band are forced to try and capture a raw spontaneity, that loose and freewheeling energy makes those original blues recordings so powerful. Along with this feeling, the live atmosphere allows plenty of opportunities for play amongst the band, with solos being traded and even backing instrumentation being thrust into the spotlight. The result is exhilarating; it feels like Clapton is finally allowed to kick off the dress shoes for these covers. You’ll hear him howl and growl just like the best of them on a majority of these tracks, with special attention to the amazing versions of Crossroads and Reconsider Baby, and of course, with this being a Clapton album, you’ll hear him whip his guitar around these songs in ways that no one has ever tried before.
Overall, this album is exactly what it says on the tin, plus a little bit more. If you’re a Clapton fan you’ve probably been waiting years for this album, and I’m very happy to say that your wait has not been in vain. I don’t know how much this album will appeal to blues purists, since there’s plenty of liberties taken with these covers, but I imagine they’ll find a good amount of enjoyment in hearing some of their favorites being given the star treatment. On the opposite end, if you’re curious about getting into the blues I recommend you give this album a listen! Clapton’s versions will certainly catch your ear and, if you wanna dive deeper, you’ll have a perfect lineup to start exploring the discography of the original pioneers too.
Before both feet are out the door I’d also like to call attention to Early in the Morning, Motherless Child and I’m Tore Down for being standout tracks, and also to the excellent work of drummer Andy Newmark and pianist Chris Stainton, who really help to bring new life and excitement to these songs. Of course all the tracks are worth your time and there isn’t a bum backing musician in sight, it’s just a note to keep your ears open to some of the gold buried here. Like all great live albums this project has a peculiar effect: it takes you in and surrounds you with a snapshot of history, where the musicians feel vibrant, wild and constantly reaching out to one another. It’s certainly a satisfying feeling listening to it here, but man, what I wouldn’t give to be in the room and see this performance with my own two eyes.
Written by Nick Snow