Mastered from the original master tapes, Mobile Fidelity's numbered hybrid SACD enhances the blockbuster work for today – and the ages to come. Peeling away remaining sonic limitations to provide a transparent, lively, ultra-nuanced presentation of a record that won six Grammy Awards – including prizes for Album of the Year, Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, and Best Rock Song, it places Clapton and company in your room. The expanse and depth of the soundstage, fullness of tones, natural snap and extension of the guitar strings, realistic rise and decay of individual notes, and roll of Clapton's vocals all attain demonstration-grade levels. A perennial audiophile favorite, Unplugged now tosses its hat into the ring as a demonstration disc.
Having sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. and more than 26 million copies worldwide, the 1992 work resonates with listeners of all generations and speaks a universal language. Recorded for MTV before a very small audience on January 16, 1992, the 14-track set became the signpost for future acoustic-based endeavors that witnessed artists of all stripes re-examining their catalogs and, in many instances, as Clapton does here, placing familiar originals in fresh contexts and unveiling spirited versions of cover material. Needless to say, Clapton's session turned MTV's series into can't-miss programming for which the likes of Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and more would soon participate.
Kicking off his performance with a spirited instrumental to establish the mood, Clapton immediately wades into the style that originally caught his attention as a British teenager in the early 1960s: American blues. Backed by a superb band that includes guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, pianist Chuck Leavell, bassist Nathan East, and drummer Steve Ferrone, Slowhand delivers a rhythmic, toe-tapping rendition of Bo Diddley's "Before You Accuse Me" that announces he's come to reconnect with his muse. What follows over the course of nearly the next hour stirs the heart, shakes the soul, moves the mind, and invigorates the senses.
Of course, there's no talking about Unplugged without keying in on "Tears in Heaven," the striking ballad Clapton penned about the death of his four-year-old son. More emotional, direct, spare, and healing than the studio version released a year prior, it crackles with an intimacy, maturity, poignancy, honesty, sweetness, and integrity that inform the entire concert. Indeed, how Clapton frames other favorites here – transforming "Layla" into a relaxed, comfortable stroll and ruminating on the seasoned ripples flowing throughout "Old Love," for example – indicate both a creative rebirth and gleeful acceptance of the next phase of his career.
And that very direction (two of Clapton's next three albums would be all-blues projects) is what really makes Unplugged so indispensable. Equivalent in mastery if not in volume to the output that earned him his "God" nickname, interpretations of Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" (complete with kazoo!), Big Bill Broonzy's "Hey Hey," Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues" and "Malted Milk," and Muddy Waters' "Rollin' & Tumblin'" showcase a learned professor in his element and all the wheels turning.
In every regard, Clapton's Unplugged session was appointment listening when it came out in August 1992. With Mobile Fidelity's SACD, that sensation is more urgent than before.