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Clapton endorses tribute band

Cream of Clapton group features guitarist’s nephew

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: May 4, 2023, 6:02am

SAN DIEGO — Eric Clapton and San Diego-bred bass great Nathan East might seem unlikely to endorse a tribute band devoted to the music of Clapton’s solo career and Cream, the pioneering power trio that propelled the English guitar legend to stardom in the 1960s.

East, who has toured and recorded with Clapton since the 1980s, might seem even more unlikely to perform with that tribute band — let alone only days after flying back to Southern California from a six-concert run with Clapton at Tokyo’s famed Nippon Budokan arena.

But The Cream of Clapton Band has two unique aces up its collective sleeve.

The four-man group’s keyboardist, Noah East, 22, is Nathan’s son. Its guitarist, Will Johns, 50, is Clapton’s nephew. (Will’s mother, Paula Boyd, is the sister of Clapton’s former wife, Patti).

The Cream of Clapton Band is also the first professional group anywhere that has included Noah, a 2022 UC Berkeley business administration graduate, as a full-time member.

“The best degree for music is doing what we’re doing now, which is playing real shows on tour,” said Noah, who is also a gifted singer.

He now performs nightly some of the same classic Cream and Clapton solo songs, including “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Wonderful Tonight,” his father grew up playing — and continues to play on tour with Clapton.

The chances these two musicians from the same family would have a Clapton-fueled convergence on stage, in San Diego, are beyond slim.

Ditto the fact this convergence will be in the same city where Nathan graduated in 1978 from the University of California San Diego. Coincidentally, that is the same campus where Noah made his 2014 concert debut with his dad at UCSD’s 18th annual Lytle Scholarship Concert.

Noah, then 13, was already earning praise for his perfect pitch. Like father, like son, with a connective tissue provided by Clapton, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s only three-time inductee.

“When you put it all that way, there is a cosmic element that the universe has presented this situation,” Nathan, 67, said, in a joint interview from Tokyo with his son. “And it’s a gift for me.”

Noah, who is now working on a duo album with his father, concurred.

“It’s truly a blessing to do what we do,” he said. “My dad has taught me gratitude and about always having a consistent work ethic.”

Cream of the crop

Noah also credits timing and luck for making Sunday’s joint San Diego concert with his band and his father possible. The group kicked off its North American concert tour on April 18 in Vancouver, Canada.

“The tour manager for The Cream of Clapton surprised me by asking: ‘Would your dad want to sit in with the band for a show one day?’ And my father happened to be free for the San Diego show, right after he gets back from Japan,” Noah said.

“So, I asked my dad: ‘Hey, do you want to play the whole show?’ And he agreed. Luckily, our current bassist, Steve Ball, plays seven instruments and has offered to play electric guitar for our San Diego show with my dad. We’ll be doing our regular repertoire. And we’re adding Blind Faith’s ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ for my dad to sing, because he used to sing it on tour with Eric.”

Nathan, a cofounder of the veteran pop-jazz group Fourplay, is one of the most versatile and prolific bassists of the past half century. He has worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Beyoncé and Herbie Hancock to Michael Jackson, Daft Punk, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, whom Nathan performed with on a Japanese concert tour in 1991 with Clapton.

Nathan’s tenure as a recording and touring partner of Clapton’s dates back nearly 40 years. Accordingly, Nathan laughed when asked how much rehearsal he needed for his San Diego performance with The Cream of Clapton Band.

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“I think I’ll probably do it based on my knowledge of the songs from years gone by working with Eric,” he replied.

Nathan got his start in San Diego as the teen bassist in Power. The band, which also included saxophonist Hollis Gentry III and keyboardist Carl Evans, Jr. — both now deceased — was soon hired to record and tour with deep-voiced soul singer Barry White.

After graduating from UCSD as a music major, Nathan moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s with the goal of becoming “everybody’s favorite bassist.” A few of his many recording credits since then include Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” Clapton and B.B. King’s “Riding with The King,” Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover” (which Nathan co-wrote) and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

Noah began taking classical piano lessons as a child and studied intensely through high school.

He was barely 15 when he performed a jazzy version of “Over the Rainbow” with his dad’s band, Fourplay, at the Blue Note club in Tokyo. The father and son’s duo version of the same song is featured on Nathan’s second solo album, “Reverence,” released in 2017. That was two years after Noah went to Atlanta to do his first paid music gig anywhere with his dad.

“I was a freshman in high school and it was remarkable to play with my father and some great Atlanta musicians,” Noah recalled. “Once I played that show and got that taste, I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

‘Almost a no-brainer’

The inspiration for The Cream of Clapton Band dates to the second half of the 1980s. It was then Clapton first toured with a four-man group that featured Nathan on bass, Phil Collins on drums and Noah’s godfather, Greg Phillinganes, on keyboards.

The four-member Cream of Clapton Band is modeled after that same group and is an outgrowth of The Music of Cream. The latter band was co-led by Clapton’s nephew, guitarist Johns, and drummer Kofi Baker, the son of deceased Cream drummer Ginger Baker. His role in the new band is being filled by Dylan Elise, 32, who is also the drummer in the latest iteration of Blood, Sweat & Tears.

“The Cream of Clapton Band’s manager reached out to me last year, explained what the concept was and told me the band features Eric’s nephew and a couple of other great musicians,” Noah said. “It was almost a no-brainer to see what I can contribute, having grown up with this music through my father. We just did 20 shows in Europe in March and this month with The Cream of Clapton. It was a really terrific experience.”

Noah was in Tokyo earlier this month with his twin sister, Sara, and their father and mother. It was a work-intensive trip for Nathan. He had intensive rehearsals with Clapton and his band for their six Tokyo concerts and for their upcoming all-star Jeff Beck tribute performances.

The Beck tributes will be at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where Clapton has performed a record 211 times since the mid-1960s. Clapton’s upcoming 6-CD and 3-Blu-Ray box set, “The Definitive 21 Nights,” features nearly six hours of music from his 1991 and 1992 Royal Albert Hall concerts, which featured Nathan on bass.

“The rehearsals in Tokyo were closed, but Eric was gracious enough to let us attend the last one,” Noah said. “I sat with my mother and sister, and Eric’s two daughters. I definitely took notes and drew inspiration for the Cream of Clapton Band tour.

“Eric’s caliber of musicianship is off the charts! And his band is so seamless,” Noah said. “After the rehearsal, he asked me how everything was going with our tour. He was very pleased when I told him we recently played a sold-out show near his hometown in England. He got a kick out of hearing about some of his old tunes that we’re playing, like ‘Running on Faith,’ which he hasn’t played live in years.

“He wished us all the best with our tour. Getting Eric’s blessing was inspiring and it definitely lit a fire under me for this tour.”