Slow Hand worshippers get an unplugged Eric

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The Independent Online
FORSAKING THE cosiness of what had become the Royal Eric Hall for the cavernous wastes of the gigantic Earl's Court was always going to prove a tall order for the guitar hero Clapton and his legions of adoring fans. Treating the audience at the first of three sold-out nights to half a dozen tracks from the recent Pilgrim album for starters didn't seem too clever either.

Co-written and co-produced by Simon Climie (of Climie Fisher fame - you must remember their naggingly catchy Eighties hit "Love Changes Everything"), Pilgrim sees Eric Clapton revert to some of the excesses of his Eighties recordings. Live material like "River of Tears" and "She's Gone" is a grim pill to swallow indeed. Even when the bespectacled guitarist soldiers on regardless after breaking a string during the first solo in "My Father's Eyes" and claims it's a good omen, the heart sinks.

Clapton has once again assembled around him the creme de la creme of musicians (the drummer Steve Gadd and the guitarist Andy Fairweather Low), added three female backing vocalists and over-egged the pudding with a 20-piece string orchestra.

Like Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and the Moody Blues, the guitar legend has dabbled with classical music before and a disastrous collaboration with Michael Kamen springs to mind. As Eric bends the notes regardless, the violins and cellos make like Jennifer Rush - "The Power Of Love" - die-hard blues fans and God-worshippers cringe.

Suddenly, 45 minutes in, Eric forsakes his black designer jacket, sits down and becomes his old masterful, Unplugged and From the Cradle self again. As he picks his way through the bluesy "Drifting" on an acoustic, Clapton is a joy to listen to.

Even the maudlin "Tears in Heaven" benefits from the new string arrangements and the sober, sulkier version of "Layla" works a treat. Eric drifts into "Change the World" and the crowd whoops with delight. Old favourites such as "Crossroads", "Wonderful Tonight" and "Cocaine" further reward the faithful.

In spite of the sins of Pilgrim, God doesn't seem so much of a concept after all.