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Pop Music Review : Showing His Soul and His Inspiration : Eric Clapton Brings Feelings of Comfort and Conviction to His All-Blues Concert at the Forum

November 05, 1994|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It took nearly 30 years, but when Eric Clapton casually sauntered on stage at the Forum on Thursday, picked up an acoustic 12-string and started strumming the old blues number "Motherless Child," he looked as if he'd finally come home.

In a concert devoted to blues songs, as is his new album, "From the Cradle," the Englishman seemed more comfortable and passionate on stage than at any time in memory. No small achievement.

In past shows, Clapton has often looked distinctly un comfortable in the spotlight--as if unworthy of the task of trying to communicate the deep emotions of his music and the blues greats that inspired him.

But Thursday, dressed in a white T-shirt and baggy pants, and with close-cropped hair and round glasses, he was a Zen blues master, ripping out guitar licks with celestial thunder and grace, and singing the words of great blues gods with soulful conviction.

It was a night of "songs that spell out what it all is for me, and caused me to be what I am, whatever that is," he told the capacity audience early in the show.

Remember, as a prodigal guitarist in the mid-'60s, Clapton quit the Yardbirds because that band was turning too "pop," and embarked on a quest for blues purity. Often through the years, though, it seemed that Clapton was wandering in the desert. For every "Layla" or "Bell Bottom Blues," songs that came from deep in his soul, there was a "Pretending" or some other empty mainstream shell.

There was no pretending on Thursday. The music Clapton played--two hours of nuggets associated with the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James and other greats of the Delta/Chicago axis--was the music that courses through his veins.

Clapton paced the show well as a primer in blues styles, starting with the acoustic basics (resembling his Grammy-winning 1992 "Unplugged" session). As the show progressed, he and his band (which features veteran blues-rock pianist Chris Stainton and harmonica ace Jerry Portnoy), electrified the set, culminating with horn-spiked urban blues.

Even with his impressive history in mind, the depth and facility Clapton showed on a wide variety of songs were remarkable. He grabbed the soul nuances of Lowell Fulson's "Sinner's Prayer," the macho boasts of Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man" and, of course, the fiery, crowd-rousing guitar lines of Freddie King's "Someday After a While."

The flow and impact could have been boosted if Clapton had given more illuminating introductions to the songs, maybe revealing where he was when he first heard some of the songs or some other insight.

But the heart conveyed in the performances transcended any sense that he was merely trying to teach his fans about the blues--a mean trick in a cavernous arena. Imagine what it will be like in next week's House of Blues shows.

* Eric Clapton will give blues-only concerts Nov. 11, 12 and 13 at the House of Blues, 8439 Sunset Blvd., 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available only through Ticketmaster's phone service.

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