Eric Clapton’s latest release, The Lady In The Balcony: Lockdown Sessions (12 November 2021; Mercury Studios) came about because the rock and blues guitar legend had to cancel his planned concerts at The Royal Albert Hall in February 2021, due to the pandemic. Like a number of other artists Clapton decided to capture the moment on disc; in his case by taking his band to Cowdray House, West Sussex, England, and recording the proceedings.
Aside from Clapton’s longtime colleagues - Nathan East (Bass), Steve Gadd (Drums) and Chris Stainton (Keyboards) – producer Russ Titelman, and a few technical staff, the only other person present was Clapton’s wife, Melia, who inspired the title of the sessions. The 17 track set is predominantly played on his Martin guitars (6 and 12 string) but for three numbers Slowhand recurs to his electric. The result represents an intimate and moving career retrospective, such as when Clapton exclaims ‘This one is for Peter’ before launching into Peter Green’s Black Magic Woman.
While the word ‘lockdown’ is included in the name of the album, the elephant in the room here is Clapton’s anti-vaccination stance, and the anti-lockdown song he released with Van Morrison - Stand and Deliver - as well as his own single This Has Gotta Stop. Then there are his previously expressed views about immigrants, which unfortunately need to be raised again because he covers Muddy Waters’ Long Distance Call, first released in 1951. It will be recalled that Waters himself hailed from Mississippi but migrated to Chicago for work…
That said, Clapton has carefully selected a clutch of classics that he obviously still loves playing, such as Layla, After Midnight, Tears in Heaven, and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out. In fact it is Bessie Smith’s 1929 song that opens the collection with some cheery bar room piano and the bluesman in fine voice.
That introductory track, which might be considered as in some ways providing a general context to the album, is followed by Golden Ring, which tells a much more specific and well-known blues story. As Clapton once said: "The song was written about the situation between me, Nell [Pattie Boyd], and George [Harrison]. It referred in part to her response to the news that George was getting married again. She took it quite hard, and I, in my arrogance, found that hard to understand. So I wrote this song about the peculiarity of our triangle, which finishes with the words: 'If I gave to you a golden ring, Would I make you happy, would I make you sing?'"
Clapton puts his heart and energy into J.J. Cale’s After Midnight as Nathan East, appropriately and skilfully swaps his guitar for upright bass. Bell Bottom Blues also sounds like it comes from a deep place, and for this critic is the emotional soul of the album.
Rock Me Baby takes us into late night blues bar territory, while Layla has some jazz touches and a lovely extended acoustic guitar solo that kicks in at 3’ 30”. Layla also of course refers to Clapton’s relationship with Boyd, and this deeply personal moment is maintained with Tears In Heaven, about the loss of his son.
Clapton closes with an electric cover of Waters’ Got My Mojo Working, which along with Bad Boy, gives an upbeat end to these sessions. As the bluesman returns to these roots’ numbers, he really sounds like he is enjoying himself, and this provides an appropriate bookend to the collection. Clapton has had both a long career and a roller-coaster life, and these songs provide faithful testimony to that storied journey.