As Eric Clapton puts the finishing touches on a scheduled 2012 release — again produced by frequent sideman Doyle Bramhall II, who also helmed the well-received Clapton a couple of years ago — we reached back for a few old favorites.
Of course, 2012 has already seen the gala reissue of Layla win a Grammy, and the 20th anniversary of Clapton’s MTV Unplugged release. We decided, however, to stay well away from those iconic moments.
Instead, we picked out favorites from seminal 1970s recordings, his one-off appearance in the supergroup Blind Faith and an all-but-forgotten R&B experiment from the 1990s …
“LAY DOWN SALLY” (SLOWHAND, 1977) Though my first experience with Clapton was probably with the face-melting guitar antics on Cream’s live Wheels Of Fire, I have to look back and credit Clapton with expanding my listening horizons with his presentations of more roots-oriented material.
“Lay Down Sally” was a huge radio hit. With its country-shuffle feel and a tight little guitar solo, the song made me realize that there just might be more to rock guitar than sledgehammer power chords and distortion. — Mark Saleski
“HAD TO CRY TODAY,” with BLIND FAITH (BLIND FAITH, 1969): Blind Faith was a great idea on paper, but was probably doomed from the start. Four (well, OK, make that three and a half) huge rock star egos, one album, six songs. Of those six songs, two take up roughly half the album, and one of them (“Do What You Like”) is built around a Ginger Baker drum solo that is a pale imitation of Baker’s great work on Cream’s “Toad.” This doesn’t change the fact that Baker is one of the greatest rock drummers ever, of course (love him or hate him for it, Baker practically invented the rock drum solo). But on that track, he pretty much laid a big, stinking egg.
The other one is a definite keeper though. Besides Clapton’s more curious, but much-longer-enduring Jesus song “Presence Of The Lord,” “Had To Cry Today” is probably the best example of what could have been from this supergroup, had they only stuck around long enough to park the famously battling egos, and get down to the business of making the great music they were undoubtedly capable of.
The chemistry between Clapton and Steve Winwood on this song is undeniable — Baker and bassist Rick Grech are mostly just along for the ride. Clapton’s playing is a perfect match for Winwood: The two of them mesh together like fine wine and cheese, although Clapton’s two solos both meander a bit. Winwood also delivers one of his strongest vocal performances on record here. The more recent performances of this song from the Clapton/Winwood reunion shows a few years back only reaffirm this.
On a side note, my very first Clapton concert was a 1969 Blind Faith show in Honolulu. They had already pretty much broken up by this point, and were just playing out their commitments. The onstage tension was palpable, and it seemed like they couldn’t wait to get through their short set of the six songs from their album, and the obligatory “Crossroads” encore from Clapton. The truth is, they weren’t very good live. But those opening notes of “Had To Cry Today” sent shivers down my spine. They still do today. — Glen Boyd
“PILGRIM” (PILGRIM, 1998): Clapton’s first album of original material since 1989′s Journeyman was, on its face, a sharp, brave attempt at modernizing the guitarist’s core sound. You hear solid licks situated amongst the prevailing R&B production values of the day — keyboards and drum programming, both swirling orchestrations and smooth female backing vocals, these car-frame rattling bass beats. But the album was much more than that.
Pilgrim was, save for Layla, the most intimate, starkly honest recording Clapton had issued so far. Both in texture and approach, it sounded nothing like the restless Clapton’s previous personas as comfy 1990s acoustic-blues throwback, perfectly coifed 1980s MOR rocker, calm and collected 1970s balladeer or frenzied 1960s rock experimentalist. So, of course, Pilgrim tanked.
Still, co-producer Simon Climie helped Clapton create a new template along the way, one that had less to do with Muddy Waters than it did Al Green. Clapton pushed himself to places few would have guessed after a period of largely unsatisfying work with Phil Collins and on movie soundtracks, then a mainstream backtrack with the MTV Unplugged recording. That’s best heard on this title track, featuring the most shatteringly raw vocal work yet for Clapton — a steadfast sideman who long refused to take centerstage and, when he did, often sounded timid or rote at the mic.
Not here. Clapton — synthesizing everything that is special about Curtis Mayfield’s work — presents himself for the very first time not as guitar god, but as bone-deep soul singer. There are times, of course, when Clapton’s sweeping ambition fails him. Most balked at the record’s modernity. Not every song works. But Pilgrim actually goes deeper than Unplugged and the 1994 covers album From the Cradle could have imagined — traveling in a brilliant way past poignancy into true sorrow. Even with the synths, this might just be Clapton’s truest, best blues record. — Nick DeRiso
“THE CORE” (SLOWHAND, 1977): One of many deep cuts found on Slowhand and, with an eight-minute running time, a deep cut it was destined to be. As this is one of Clapton’s funkiest tunes, maybe they found a good groove that they didn’t want to let go of.
It’s a groove that starts with Clapton’s own gritty riffing (the original title for the song was, indeed, “The Riff”), and locked down by Carl Radle’s bass and Jamie Oldaker’s drums. But sharing equal billing with the guitar god is vocalist and the song’s cowriter Marcy Levy. Levy, who later became known as Marcella Detroit and formed the duo Shakespear’s Sister with Siobhan Fahey, carries most of the vocal chores, with the deep sassy swagger of a Motown singer, well outsinging Clapton who really hadn’t emerged as a vocalist in his own right yet. His guitar on the other hand certainly did “sing” with resonance as he sparred with sax player Mel Collins.
Riffed-based jamming so often goes nowhere, but “The Core” is jamming with soul and purpose. — S. Victor Aaron
“LET IT GROW” (461 OCEAN BOULEVARD, 1974): This gorgeously chiseled song appears on the chart-topping 461 Ocean Boulevard album, which features the No. 1 hit cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff.” Such gold nuggets marked a phenomenal comeback for Eric Clapton, who for the past few years had been struggling with an addiction to heroin.
During that period, the music scene had changed quite drastically, but good old Eric had no problem adjusting to a more refined environment. Although guitar gods still walked the earth and were lauded for their prowess, the spontaneity and rawness that once ruled the studios had been replaced with slicker production values.
Starting out on a delicate, folk oriented note, “Let it Grow” builds momentum at a nice, balanced pace. The track swells slowly but surely, as it melts into an electrified forum of emotion and technique. Scripted of romantic verse, the song also projects something of a spiritual essence. At times, Eric’s calm and relaxed vocals veer towards a whispery pitch.
Mid-way through the tune, a handful of signature bluesy licks materialize, but the main meat of “Let it Grow” pivots around ringing, resounding chords before climaxing into a haunting, hypnotic swirl of power and beauty. Seated on the ballad side of the aisle, the song pretty much foreshadowed the softer direction Eric would head in. Breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking! — Beverly Patterson