Album reviews: Eric Clapton | Richard Ashcroft | Starless

Eric Clapton still plays the blues beautifully, but there's little sense of new ground being broken here

Eric Clapton

Like many of his non-retiring peers from the trailblazing 1960s, Eric Clapton doesn’t appear entirely sure what to do with himself now that obsolescence has hit. Where to direct his musical energies? Paul McCartney has his occasional experimental forays as one half of The Fireman, John Paul Jones hangs out with hip young(er) gunslingers Dave Grohl and Josh Homme, and Robert Plant is too busy fusing the blues with mystical world music traditions to even think about nostalgia, while Rod Stewart, paradoxically, is as giddy as a teenager now that he’s sentimentally plumbing his own past for material.

Clapton, meanwhile, continues to play the functional blues, doffing his cap yet again to the delta bluesmen who have always been his go-to musical mentors, with another album (I Still Do, ***) of mostly covers and standards on which he demonstrates yet again that he can play this stuff in his sleep – and indeed uses one track, the laidback lullaby Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day, to persuade his grandson to call it a night.

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There is further familiarity in re-uniting with producer Glyn Johns 40 years on from his Slowhand days, and echoes of Cream’s fiery fusion style in some of the heavier numbers here. He takes his time on Leroy Carr’s Alabama Woman Blues, his low-slung yet precise playing complemented by piano pounding and organ brooding in the background.

Richard Ashcroft

The smoother, Steely Dan-like sound of JJ Cale’s Can’t Let You Do It and his own softly soulful Catch the Blues contrasts with the crunch and rasp of Robert Johnson cover Stones In My Passway, which adds a hint of zydeco to the earthy arrangement. The wheezy Cajun accordian sound also features on I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine, adding a splash of sonic interest. Who knows, maybe he’s even enjoying himself.

At least there is some mischief at play in crediting one Angelo Mysterioso on guitar and guest vocals. This was the pseudonym used by the late George Harrison on the first Cream record, leading to speculation that the incognito guest could be his son, Dhani Harrison.

Richard Ashcroft isn’t much known for his playful public self. The former Verve frontman and sage (according to Noel Gallagher) returns after six years with These People (**), older but musically pacing the same inoffensive indie gospel territory, still subtly coloured by burnished guitars and tastefully swooping strings. His personal-political missives are generally wistfully delivered though there are occasionally glimpses of a pleasing, gruffer baritone, and a cautious experiment with semi-rapping and vocoder vocal effects on Ain’t The Future So Bright. Emboldened by this journey into (relatively) new sounds, he celebrates by shaking a leg on Songs Of Experience. But even his old pal Noel is a more adventurous musical soul these days.

The Hamburg-based independent label Marina Records continues its cordial relationship with the musicians of Glasgow with the release of the self-titled debut by Starless (***), an ambitious orchestrated project conceived and led by Love and Money keyboard player Paul McGeechan, played by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and sung by a host of guest vocalists. Comparisons with his peer Craig Armstrong are unavoidable, especially as McGeechan also calls on Blue Nile frontman Paul Buchanan for brooding, moody embellishment on the title track. All the singers offer tasteful, textured performances but it’s the female vocalists, including Karen Matheson and Julie Fowlis, who rescue the tending-to-ponderous compositions from the smooth realms of background music. Fiona Shepherd

Richard Ashcroft

CLASSICAL: Chorus vel Organa: Music from the Lost Palace of Westminster | Rating: **** | Delphian

With so many early music recordings about, interesting themes are constantly needed to make give new ones a marketable curiosity value. Chorus el Organa, featuring the fine voices of the Choir of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge under Geoffrey Webber, takes us into the fascinating pre-Reformation world of St Stephen’s chapel, a lost foundation that existed where the current Houses of Parliament stand. It was dissolved in 1548, after fostering a musical tradition known to have been outstanding for two centuries. The intriguing aspect of this recording is not just the exquisite music by the likes of Nicholas Ledford (the liquid polyphony of his Lady Mass Cycle, for instance), but the fascinations of Newcastle academic Magnus Williamson’s improvised Versets, conceived on his own understanding of performance styles of the day, and played on an instrument inspired by pre-Reformation organ building. Ken Walton

JAZZ: Bill Evans with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette: Some Other Time | Rating: **** | Resonance Records

Out of the vaults comes a wonderful session from the late and hugely influential pianist Bill Evans with his long-time bassist Gomez and the second of only two recordings he made with DeJohnette. Sub-titled The Lost Session from the Black Forest, this double album was recorded at MPS Studios, Villingen, Germany in June 1968, five days after their Montreux concert, which became a Grammy-winning live album.

Not only a significant piece of jazz detective work, this is a delight to listen to as the three cut loose. Evans gives a loose-limbed solo treatment of It’s All Right With Me, slides effortlessly from waltz-time into elegant cascade and vivacious exchange with Gomez’s springy bass in Very Early, and flows effortlessly through Baubles, Bangles and Beads, while DeJohnette’s drumming, with tapping, hissing cymbals, is spare but irresistibly forward-moving. Jim Gilchrist