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Inside Eric Clapton’s New Tour With Bassist Nathan East: Exclusive Interview

Jesse Grant, Getty Images
Jesse Grant, Getty Images

Nathan East has once again rejoined Eric Clapton, this time for a pair of shows continuing tonight at Madison Square Garden. Clapton also plays March 25-26 at the Forum in Los Angeles, in May in London and then again in September at Madison Square Garden and at the Forum.

This new touring schedule, which focuses on extended stints at several locations, rather than the traditional globe-trotting jaunt, has led to a huge lifestyle shift for road warriors like East – a bassist who has previously worked with Phil Collins, as well as with Joe Satriani, George Harrison, Bryan Ferry and Toto, among many others. He now has time to complete the just-released Reverence, a No. 1 solo jazz album that features Clapton, Collins and members of Earth, Wind and Fire.

“I remember, back in the day, we’d tour with Phil Collins and you wouldn’t see your bed for nine months,” East tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “It was like a tour of duty. You’d look at the itinerary and you’d be like, ‘Wait a second. When am I going to be back home?’ This is a pace that’s nice. It coincides with the timing of life. I love what Eric is doing – a couple of Madison Square Gardens, a couple of Forums, a couple of Albert Halls. It’s a perfect schedule.”

Eric Clapton tickets are available now. Nathan East takes us inside these ongoing concert dates with Clapton, offering his thoughts on Phil Collins’ recent un-retirement and what it takes to be a great sideman.

After three decades together, what insights have you gained about Eric Clapton as an artist, rather than as a classic-rock icon?
He really responds to musicians. One of the most fun things is to try to push each other, you know? When you have people who play with that much passion, it just causes you to dig a little deeper. And I find that it creates some really great results, in terms of what we end up with. Sometimes on a song like “I Shot the Sheriff,” you think you know what’s going to happen. Then, you start it, and it goes to another level. It’s always exciting. It’s like, fasten your seatbelts.

Take us back to your early period with Clapton, back in the ’80s. What made that time unique? Other than the Armani, of course.
[Laughs.] Right, exactly! In the ’80s, we had recorded Behind the Sun, and we had recorded August together. So, the first tours in the ’80s were those songs, and then sprinkled in – of course, you have to do “Layla.” They won’t let you out of there without doing “Layla.” So, it was fun, all of that material with Phil Collins. We did all of that with a quartet of me, Phil, Greg Phillinganes, and Eric. We called it the Heaven Band, you know, because it was some of the most fun we ever had. We started with six [Royal] Albert Hall shows, then the next thing you know the next year was 12. Then, it was 18. Then it was 24 nights. I mean, it was amazing. Oh, man. So much fun. With Eric, it’s always been – when you’re recording, it’s like you’re doing a performance. It’s not like you’re making a track; you’re performing. It’s all kind of based on life experiences, so it feels very organic – very real. That’s why I think he’s survived, and he’s lasted so many years. It’s never a calculated deal. It’s not crafted tracks in the studio. It’s playing from the heart, and I think that touches hearts around the world.

Watch Nathan East Perform Cream’s ‘Badge’ With Eric Clapton

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After so long together, it must have been something like a homecoming when you gathered for the first rehearsals ahead of these Madison Square Garden dates.
It’s funny, you all get together on the first day, and then it’s like, “Hey, what do you want to play?” [Laughs.] There’s so much to choose from, and there’s so many great songs. I mean, “Bell Bottom Blues” and two different versions of “Layla,” it goes on and on.

Speaking of Phil Collins, that collaborative relationship was rekindled on your new solo album. Were you more surprised when he retired, or when he un-retired?
First of all, you can’t retire in the music business. [Laughs.] This is something we do, whether we are doing it as our job or not. So, every time I hear about a musician retiring, I always set the timer to see how long it is before they come out of it. But I was very thankful, because Phil did officially retire. It was a long time of him saying, “Nope, I’m not going out and working.” So, it was just wonderful last year when I got the call to go down to Florida and do a charity event. Then, last year we did the opening of the Arthur Ashe Stadium for the U.S. Open. It was almost like he never left, just pressed the pause button. These guys are such a part of everybody’s DNA, and they’re so good.

Into the ’00s, you helped resurrect Toto by filling in for their late bassist Mike Porcaro in benefit shows to help in his fight against ALS. Many fans never thought they’d see Toto on the road again.
Those were all my brothers. We see each other anyway. We all kind of live in the valley in L.A., anyway. You see each other at sessions, or at lunch. And so, obviously when the call came and it was such a worthy cause because Mike Porcaro was suffering with ALS, this was an opportunity to help him out with his expenses. It was immediately, “Okay, when do we leave?” Again, there’s so much music there, and so many hits and songs that are loved around the world, it was just a fun love-fest getting to go on the road with those guys. We just had a ball. It was great, for the last years of Mike Porcaro’s life, to be able to help him and his family out. I got to get closer to them, and it was a wonderful experience.

You’ve played a role like that in more sessions and more tours than your average music fan probably realizes. What’s the secret to being a great sideman? Is it just being open to the moment?
I think being open to the moment – you know, every day is a new day. The other thing is, I’m the biggest fan of a lot of this music that I get to play, anyway. I was a Cream fan, growing up. I was a Toto fan, and Phil Collins. A lot of the people I’ve ended up working with, I was just a fan. So, for me, it’s just an honor to get to make music and collaborate with these guys. This is what I think contributes to that. Every one of these situations becomes like family. They’re literally like a brotherhood. After more than 30 years with Clapton, and the same with people like Phil, it’s just really, really special.

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