Crossroads 2: Live In The Seventies by Eric Clapton

December 13, 2009

Eric Clapton released a number of strong studio albums during the seventies, but his live material was a different breed altogether. At times he would virtually disappear in the studio yet on stage he was front and center. I mentioned in a previous review that I always want to see or hear him ring his guitar’s neck and live is where that occurs most consistently.

Crossroads 2: Live In The Seventies gathers together about four hours of concert material plus four studio outtakes into a four-CD box set, providing an excellent overview of his concert style and sound from 1974 through 1978. The extended versions of many of the songs give him the room to explore, experiment, and stretch out on the guitar.

Disc one contains one of the great tour de forces of his career in the medley of “Willie & The Hand Jive/Get Ready,” which clocks in at over eleven minutes and exhibits Clapton just having fun on stage. “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” is seven-plus minutes of slow blues nirvana. And his cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” is presented in a slow tempo while taking on on a blues flavor.

Disc two is the strongest of the set. “Layla” is Clapton at his rock ‘n’ roll best. Ten minutes of “I Shot The Sheriff” places the focus on his pickin’ style which is some of the best in the business. Likewise, ten minutes of “Badge” show why the “Clapton Is God” moniker is accurate. “Eyesight To The Blind/Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad,” recorded at The Providence Civic Center in June of 1975, finds him sharing the stage with Carlos Santana in a twenty-four-minute jam.

Disc three is a little bit blues and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Only Eric Clapton could pull off a thirteen-minute version of “Stormy Monday.” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Lay Down Sally,” and “Cocaine” are more restrained but still represent his live sound well. “Goin’ Down Slow/Rambling On My Mind” is more extended blues.

Disc four is the weakest of the set. “Tulsa Time” and “Wonderful Tonight” feature some nice vocals and any performance of “Crossroads” is always welcome but the three concluding studio tracks are out of place and lack the energy of what has preceded them.

As good as Clapton is in the studio, he is just as good—if not better—in the concert hall. Crossroads 2: Live In The Seventies presents the solo Clapton at a good point during his career and, as such, is an essential release for any aficionado of his music.

Rainbow Concert by Eric Clapton

December 6, 2009

Much of the early seventies were not a good time for Eric Clapton as he descended into heroin addiction. After the break-up of Derek and The Dominoes he also virtually disappeared from the music scene.

Enter Pete Townshend who organized a personal intervention. The place was the Rainbow Theatre in London and the date was January 13, 1973. For Clapton’s comeback he surrounded himself with some of the cream of English rock ‘n’ roll. In addition to Townshend there was guitarist Ronnie Wood, bassist Ric Grech, keyboardist Steve Winwood, and the double drum attack of Jim Capaldi and Jimmy Karstein.

I still have my original vinyl copy of the concert and remember thinking that it was powerful live music but had little continuity. It is one of the few vinyl releases that I have replaced with the CD version. The 1995 release contains fourteen tracks as opposed to the six issued on the original vinyl record and gives a much better idea as to what occurred during the two shows in London that day.

Clapton is not at his best (which is understandable given the circumstances), but he is still much better than just about anyone else and his compatriots more than make up for any shortcomings he may have had during the performances. The vocals are a little ragged and his guitar playing is strained in a few places which only add to the charm and authenticity of the concert and recording.

The original release included a magnificent performance of the Blind Faith tune “Presence Of The Lord” and a fine rendition of Traffic’s “Pearly Queen.” “After Midnight” is smooth as usual, but it is Hendrix’s “Little Wing” where he really takes off.

The 1995 CD presents a lot of the material that had been missing for over two decades. The rock of “Layla” and “Let It Rain” meet the blues of “Key To The Highway” and “Crossroads.” The band is a little ragged in places but the talent overcomes any problems that crop up.

Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert would return him to the limelight and eventually to good health. 1974 would find him releasing the commercially successful and critically acclaimed 461 Ocean Boulevard. There may be better concerts by Eric Clapton, but none more important. As such it remains an essential part of his history.

Unplugged by Eric Clapton

November 28, 2009

I don’t know what was going through Eric Clapton’s mind when he agreed to participate in the MTV Unplugged series, but the result was one of the finest solo albums of his career. It would reach number one on The American album charts and sell in excess of ten million copies. The album and its chart topping single “Tears In Heaven” would win a combined six Grammy Awards.

As the title of the MTV series suggests, this was a non-electric or acoustic Eric Clapton. His guitar is front and center and showcases him as one of the master craftsmen of his instrument. His clean technique and the sounds he draws from his Martin 000-42 are some of the best of his storied career.

The moving tribute to his son, “Tears In Heaven,” remains the most memorable track and continues to receive radio airplay seventeen years afters its release. This brilliant song aside, Unplugged is basically a blues album.

The opening instrumental, “Signe,” sets the tone as he establishes his smooth guitar runs which dominate the album. He follows with Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” which is a classic 12 bar blues song. Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey” is the type of slower blues tune he has always excelled at.

I recently reviewed his 2004 release Me and Mr. Johnson, which was a cover album of Robert Johnson material. I was not very kind as an electric Clapton, with a band behind him, presented a bland group of songs. Here he covers his “Walkin’ Blues” and “Malted Milk” and what a difference, as he remains true to the originals and his guitar playing rivals that of Johnson’s which is high praise indeed.

Two songs from his Layla album are very strong. “Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out” places Clapton’s guitar against a piano foundation with good results. “Layla” is completely re-worked. It now includes prominent keyboards and the tempo is slowed down.

Unplugged remains a consistently excellent release. Guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low and keyboardist Chuck Leavell provide solid support.

In some ways, it is easy to dismiss this release because it was so popular. But this time the album buying public got it right as it presents Eric Clapton playing the guitar as only he can. It remains one of the essential releases in his catalog.

Me and Mr. Johnson by Eric Clapton

November 28, 2009

Robert Johnson may not have invented the blues, but he remains one of its most influential practitioners. His box set, The Complete Recordings gathers all of his material into one place and should be required listening for any fan of rock or blues music.

Eric Clapton’s career was grounded in the blues and particularly the music of Robert Johnson. His catalog is sprinkled with his songs.

I am a big fan of both the blues and Eric Clapton, so it was with a great deal of anticipation that I awaited Clapton’s cover album of Robert Johnson material. It seemed like a natural. Somehow Me and Mr. Johnson didn’t work out as I expected. It was just too slick and professional. Johnson was passionate, intense and a great technician, but he was definitely not slick.

The CD cover pictures a stark Clapton, seated in front of a picture of Johnson, holding an acoustic guitar. If he had taken the cover to heart he probably would have been better off. Johnson recorded with just his 12 string guitar, while Clapton brings along his band. When you add in the production it veers away from the original intent and style of the music. I wish Clapton would have tackled the songs with just his guitar and let the chips fall where they may.

I have no doubt that Clapton loves the music and truly tries to make it his own and there are a few tracks that rise above the rest. “Traveling Riverside Blues” is played as traditional 12 bar blues. “They’re Red Hot” was an unusual Johnson song as he did not use a 12 string guitar, and it seems to fit Clapton’s style well. “Hellhound On My Trail” is one of the best blues songs of all time and Clapton interprets it well as his vocal presents the intense imagery of the lyrics.

“Love In Vain” is representative of the albums problems as Clapton just gives a bland performance. Compare his version with that of The Rolling Stones on their Let It Bleed album and it just does not measure up.

Clapton had successfully covered a number of Johnson songs in the past but this many together just seemed to be beyond him. What he did create was a technically proficient but ultimately sterile album. If you truly want to hear the music of Robert Johnson interpreted well check out Peter Green’s Me & The Devil and The Robert Johnson Songbook because he got it right.

Maybe Me and Mr. Johnson will serve as an introduction to the music of an important blues legend but as an interpretive effort it leaves a lot to be desired.

Reptile by Eric Clapton

November 28, 2009

Beginning with 1989’s Journeyman and continuing through 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson, Eric Clapton rotated studio albums consisting of blues covers—including one with B.B. King (Riding With The King)—with rock/blues fusion releases that boasted many original compositions.

Reptile, released in March of 2001, returned producer Simon Climie and many of the band members from Clapton’s Pilgrim project, yet the results were very different and the music was ultimately superior. Clapton managed to keep Climie’s inclination to program instruments under control. The drum machines were turned down, the synthesizers used more judiciously. It all added up to an intimate, very good album.

Andy Fairweather-Low returned as the second guitarist as did Joe Sample, who handled the keyboards on eight of the tracks. The inspired addition was the use of the legendary soul group, The Impressions, as back-up singers for ten of the fourteen tracks. They complemented Clapton’s vocals well and provided a fullness of sound that was unique among his releases.

As with many of his non-blues studio albums, sometimes Clapton’s guitar playing disappears into the background and the solos are much too short. Still, what is present is representative of his talent. Two instrumentals bookend the album. The title song has a smooth, almost jazz feel to it while “Son & Sylvia” contains some nice acoustic work.

The old Ray Charles tune, “Come Back Baby,” is given a superior treatment. Billy Preston’s joyful organ playing drives the song along and combines well with Clapton’s bluesy guitar lines while his near-gospel vocal floats above the mix. “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” is a rare, successful cover of a Stevie Wonder composition.

“Superman Inside” and the J.J. Cale tune “Travelin’ Light” find him in rock mode while his own composition, “Believe In Life,” is a quiet love song.

Reptile presents the modern studio Clapton at his best and while it may not contain the guitar pyrotechnics that I would necessarily like to hear, it is still a satisfying album.

Riding With The King by Eric Clapton and B.B. King

November 16, 2009

Eric Clapton plus B.B. King equaled an outstanding blues album. Many people agreed with that assessment as Riding With The King reached double platinum status in sales and won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album.

Clapton has been a guest on countless albums down through the years, but here he formed a partnership with one of the great blues legends. They make an interesting and effective combination as King’s Delta Blues style meshes well with Clapton’s contemporary rock/blues fusion foundation.

Clapton assembled a nice tight band to provide support. Andy Fairweather-Low and Jimmie Vaughan are on board as basically rhythm guitarists and they lay down a nice foundation. The musical key is pianist Joe Sample who really pushes the music along which allows King and Clapton to take off on their solo excursions.

Both musicians have always been able to produce a crystal clear sound and accentuate each note. They both are also able to take a song and transform it so it travels in new and unexpected directions.

Three of B.B. Kings early compositions are resurrected for this album. 1951’s “Three O’Clock Blues,” 1954’s “When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer,” and 1955’s “Ten Long Years” are vehicles for them to trade a number of tasty solos and vocals.

Other highlights include a wonderful acoustic version of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway” and a blues rendition of the Sam & Dave hit “Hold On! I’m Coming” which includes some of the best guitar lines on the album.

This album was one of those ideas that sounded great and actually worked. It is the second of an excellent trio of blues albums that Clapton would produce and matches well with 1994’s From The Cradle and 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson. Fans of B.B. King, Eric Clapton, the blues, and good music should all be pleased with this release. Riding With The King is a journey down a highway which is not traveled very often.

Pilgrim by Eric Clapton

November 16, 2009

Pilgrim, released in early 1998, was Eric Clapton’s first album of original material since 1989’s Journeyman. In the interim he had released a blues cover album, his number one chart hit Unplugged, and Crossroads 2, which was a live box set. So it was with some anticipation that I awaited this new release and I was somewhat disappointed. Looking back over a decade later I am even more disappointed as a project with B.B. King and a Robert Johnson cover album would quickly follow that were far superior to this release. At the time many of his fans were pleased, however, as it was a big worldwide commercial success.

The album had a very modern feel to it which I’m not sure is always a positive thing where Eric Clapton is concerned. There are drum machines, strings, and synthesizers, all of which push his guitar playing into the background. He is one of the best guitar players in music history and I always want him to step forward and wring the guitar’s neck. I can’t help but think had he stripped the music back to basics it would have fared a lot better as the songs themselves are mostly fine.

“My Father’s Eyes” remains the album’s best known song. It is an emotional and poignant ode about his father and son. It won a Grammy award for Best Male Pop Vocal.

There are a few gems that can be mined. “Sick & Tired” is an upbeat song about the blues. “She’s Gone” is one of the few instances where he steps forward and lets his guitar playing take over. “Going Down Slow,” an old blues classic written by Jimmy Oden and popularized by Howlin’ Wolf, tells of a dying man looking back at life. This song, in particular, returns Clapton to his comfort zone and it shows.

Pilgrim is by no means a terrible album; I just think it could have been better. If you are going to spend time exploring the music of Eric Clapton, there are a number of other releases that are more worthwhile.