Friday, December 30, 2011

Eric Clapton Blues

I'd long lusted after this double CD of Clapton's blues recordings in the decade between 1970 and 1980 but it had always been too expensive for me to buy in a record shop. Somehow there were many other double CD albums that were cheaper or became cheaper over time. Not this one. Even though it was still expensive I bought it in September 2011 because I had a voucher. Of course I bought 3 other CDs at the same time and still spent a bunch of money but on average the Clapton double album cost me R121 from my own pocket. Not bad.

Clapton is one of my favourite blues guitarists ever, in the top three with Peter Green and Albert King, and his work with Cream initiated me into blues and prompted me to seek out the old bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta, whether they stayed there and played at country juke joints, or went to Chicago, electrified and played taverns on Maxwell Street. Clapton's solo on the live version of "Sleepy Time Time" from Live Cream will always be in my personal top ten of great guitar moments; in fact a lot of his work will be in that top ten list.

I won't pretend to be a Clapton completist. I am fond of the Yardbirds stuff; the tunes he cut with John Mayall are pretty damn amazing and his work with Cream is unsurpassed. That is more or less where I stopped listening to or buying any Clapton release before Unplugged, and then From the Cradle and the two albums dedicated to the music of Robert Johnson. The rock star stuff from the Seventies, Eighties and beyond leaves me mostly cold. I do own 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand but that is mostly because those songs resonate with echoes of my youth and rock radio. I also own Timepieces: Live in the Seventies because it was cheap and I have One More Rider, the live double album from the late nineties because it was cheap, but only the performances on the first named are any good. Obviously the Clapton band is professional and proficient yet they kind of suck the life from the songs they play. It is one thing reinterpreting your best loved songs; it is quite another thing to smother them with sophistication and stagecraft. There is a large pop audience out there for Eric Clapton and kudos to him for finding that audience in the first place and continuing to satisfy it. I prefer the bluesman Clapton and always will.

The general way in which Clapton has dealt with the blues over the years has changed considerably as can be expected from an artist with such a long career. In the early days, when he was young and hungry and played a Gibson Les Paul, it is all fury and attack with the famous "woman tone." When Clapton switched to the Stratocaster he also forsook the youthful brio and found a somewhat brighter yet also mellower sound, sometimes a tad too bright and trebly for my taste. The roar of twin humbuckers is just so much more to my taste than the piercing tone of a single coil pick-up. This was especially true of the Seventies Clapton, when he wanted to be just another guitarist in the band and not the overweening solo star, and it was a great relief to me to hear, in From the Cradle in particular, that Eric Clapton could still play dirty blues and make them count.

If I think of solo artists of the Seventies, Neil Young stands out as the guy whose records from that decade I would want to own, and I do have a bunch. When I think of Eric Clapton the only truly compelling album is Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs. 461 Ocean Boulevard is important but not a desert island disc. Nothing else really matters though I would not mind owning the expanded (CD) version of EC Was Here and perhaps Just One Night, both live sets that showcase different aspects of the repertoire. The first of these had a cover that was highly risqué for Stellenbosch in the mid-Seventies, featuring a close-up photograph of a naked female torso. It was the kind of record cover a hormonally charged teenage boy like me could secretly perve over when flipping through album covers in a record shop. I would have been embarrassed to buy the record though even if Clapton was a legitimate rock god. The music is a mixture of tunes from Blind Faith and Derek & The Dominoes and is weighted on the contemplative, acoustic side of Clapton's repertoire. The original record was flawed in that, as single platter, some songs were faded out long before the actual end of the liver rendition. In those days, it seems, Clapton liked stretching out on his blues.

The later live double album was recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo and is the typical combination of old and new, rock and blues, that was the staple raison d'etre of live albums in the late Seventies, when, after Frampton Comes Alive, record companies woke up to the realisation that this relatively low cost product (no need to book lengthy studio recording time) could be massively profitable. By 1979 Clapton had been a solo pop / rock act for most of the decade, and very successfully for about 5 years, and had a good selection of hits to entertain an audience with, and given that he is a master musician with a crack band behind him, one could expect more powerful, more expanded versions of his hits. The only tracks from this album that interested me were the blues tracks but at the time his updated version of songs like "Rambling on my Mind" did not appeal because of that trebly Stratocaster sound which sounded kinda thin and anaemic to me, compared to the versions with John Mayall or Derek & The Dominoes. In later years I have come to appreciate this sound for what it is, without hankering back to the old days. He moved on and his sound moved on.

I am not a big fan of the pop Clapton, especially the latter day version, from the Phil Collins years in the Eighties to the present. He may have made a number of accomplished, polished non-blues albums and have achieved a good measure of commercial success with them but his laid back pop style is not to my taste, however sincere and committed he may be. I now own the CDs of 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand, mostly because of the significant impact their respective4 hits had on local radio, and I would not mind owning Backless either, simply for the inclusion of the two blues standards "Early In the Morning" and "Floating Bridge", but that would be just about it. The Another Rider live collection was a complete disappointment, even with the inclusion of some old favourites, because the arrangements were so anodyne and lifeless, although I can see where a live audience would have appreciated the big performances. There just does not seem to be much energy in these renditions and reinterpretations. The album of the Cream reunion concerts suffer from the same failure. Most of the venerable Cream tunes sound like Eric Clapton being backed by some anonymous session guys, churning out tired versions of songs for a nightclub audience who are as old as the band members and who are there for nostalgic reasons and not because the music is still vital. Cream once had fire, energy and brio; in 2005 it was just about the money, I guess, regardless of the protestations to the contrary.

It is the bluesman Clapton that I truly appreciate and like. Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, From the Cradle and the two albums dedicated to the music of Robert Johnson, and even the Riding With The King collaboration with B B King, are the desert island disc Clapton records in my collection. Then there would be the entire Cream oeuvre, and probably also Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. All of these are, to my mind, imperative choices.

In the Seventies Clapton regularly recorded blues tunes for his albums and interpreted them within the context of his band sound of the time, which often contrasts sharply with the sound and attitude of the specific blues records from 1994 onwards. The blues bottom line is there but the songs tend to sound merely bluesy as opposed to being deep, heartfelt blues.

The first CD of Blues consists of recordings from the Seventies, mostly with the core bands of the time, one track with Derek & The Dominoes, one guitar duet with Duane Allman and a solo recording. Some of these tracks have never been released and some have been taken from their parent albums.

The second CD consists of live recordings from the same period.

The studio set is bookended by two different versions of "Before you Accuse Me." I know the version from Unplugged quite well and the full band take is quite interesting, given that the syncopated interplay between the guitars is reminiscent of "Lay Down Sally" from Slowhand, and typical of the Tulsa sound of J J Cale. It was recorded during the session for Backless, the album that followed Slowhand but this take did not make it to the album. It sets the tone for the type of blues interpretations Eric Clapton essays on most of the tracks on this album. Here the blues is expressed as world weariness and deep melancholy and not particularly insouciant. The approach may be intended as being laid back, in keeping with the general tenor of the Clapton sound and emotional connection to his material, yet some of the tracks, and here I am thinking of the jams on "Meet Me In The Bottom" or "Country Jail Blues", just come across as enervated and lacking in inspired drive. "Meet Me In The Bottom" sounds like an out-take studio jam, with Clapton making up the lyrics as he goes along. No wonder this track is "previously unreleased." Apart from making up the numbers on this album, there is no good reason to have unearthed it from the vault, unless it is intended to illustrate that Clapton and band could have great fun messing around with a well-known blues tune.

Strangely, "Give Me Strength" works better than the blues covers, perhaps exactly because it sounds like a real plea from a man with real problems and is not merely a regurgitation of blues tropes.

The two songs that I am really glad to meet again are "Early In The Morning" from Backless and "Floating Bridge" from Another Ticket. The first of these was the tune that made me want to own the record, as it was the first Clapton blues, other than his work with Cream, I'd heard and by then I already knew Junior Wells and Buddy Guy's version of it too. I'd recorded "Floating Bridge" from the radio but had not been completely on station for the opening minute or two, which gave the taped performance an outer space weirdness I really liked. Great performance of an interesting Sleepy John Estes tune, too, and kudos to Clapton for honouring a relatively obscure country bluesman.

The second interpretation of "Before You Accuse Me" is more of proper blues than the cut that opens the CD. It is rhythmically less interesting yet also rocks harder and has more of the feel of the disgruntlement the lyrics suggest.

It is perhaps the greatest failing of this collection of tunes drawn from a commercially successful and personally bad period in Clapton's life too often sound a tad gutless and enervated. Obviously Clapton plays the blues because he loves them and I would not say that these performances are perfunctory or rote nods to his roots and influences but on occasion, and this holds true for the live set, I would have liked some fire, some intensity. The Englishman's quiet desperation does not inform the blues as well as the oppressed, and repressed, rage of the Mississippi bluesman.

The clue is the inclusion of "Wonderful Tonight" in the live set. It is a beautiful, heartfelt and tender love song to Patti, the opposite of the emotions expressed in "Layla", also about Patti, and the latter song would have been a better fit in a blues context, as it comes from the same tortured space as "Have You Ever Loved A Woman", which is included in the live set.

The problem, though, is not really the song selection but the way in which Clapton performs them. The required intensity is just not there; some of these performances sound like a band going through the motions one more time on old favourites. I appreciate that one cannot expect Clapton to revisit the blistering version of "Crossroads" released on Cream's Wheels of Fire album but I would have hoped for something with more punch and urgency. In a way the version on Blues adumbrates the sound of the reunited Cream at their 2005 Albert Hall concerts and that was the sound of three older guys who no longer can, or want to, play with the same power and raw inventiveness of their youth. The thins is that Eric Clapton was only in his Thirties when the live performances on Blues were recorded and he already sounds like the 60-year old guy at the Albert Hall in 2005.

My belief is that Clapton recorded and performed blues during the Seventies because it is a music he loves and not particularly because he wanted to pursue it as a dedicated genre. For this reason the blues performance had to fit in with the general ambience of the rock tunes and this is why the blues on Blues seem so anaemic compared to the recordings on From The Cradle and Me & Mr Johnson, where Clapton set out to pay dues to the blues. He is always the consummate craftsman and does not overheat the blues, like (for example) Gary Moored, whether ii is with the big Clapton band of the Seventies or with the small combos of the later blues recordings, but this also means that he does not sound all that committed to the material, even if he may have been, presented on Blues.

This double album is probably an excellent compilation to represent a facet of Eric Clapton's recorded and live output during the Seventies. It reflects the fact that Clapton never abandoned the blues and that it formed the bedrock of his oeuvre over the entire length of his highly commercial solo career path following on the high pressure of Cream and the relative failure of Derek & The Dominoes. Although I am somewhat disappointed by the lack of urgency and intensity in most of these blues performances I am nonetheless glad I now own Blues. I will never be a Clapton completist, as I do not much care for his more popular recordings though I will always be appreciative of his take on the blues, whichever way it goes.

Eric Clapton may not be God and he may not be blues incarnate either but he is a jolly fine bluesman all the same.







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