26 July, 2009

When God Gets The Blues

Birthing a God

If ever there was a guitarist that needs no introduction, a guitarist whose name implies legend, a guitarist whose licks are recognizable to the uninitiated - it would be Jimi Hendrix, who turned the guitar world (literally, during some of his solos) upside-down. But do you know who even the revolutionary Jimi Hendrix idolized? His contemporary and leader of the hit supergroup Cream, Eric Clapton - who, even among the slew of guitar gods arising out of the heady generation of the 60's, earned the illustrious, and potentially sacrilegious, title of "God" among his most obsessed fans (usurping his more modest nickname of "Slowhand"). Now, I've listened to enough guitarists with amazing talent to realize that there's just no point in arguing who's the best (because clearly, nobody will ever beat Roy Buchanan), but, unlike many of his contemporaries, Eric Clapton possesses a good supply of talent, fame, *and* longevity, for which he deserves recognition. And he's had his share of misery, too. You see, even God gets the blues from time to time.

Eric Clapton first made a name for himself in The Yardbirds, the premium guitar supergroup of the 1960's British blues scene. When he left the band to pursue a straighter blues outfit, he was first replaced by one Jeff Beck, and later by Jimmy Page, who retooled the band towards the end of the decade and birthed Led Zeppelin (a band that itself needs no introduction). Meanwhile, Clapton stepped into position as guitarist for the Bluesbreakers, a band that was John Mayall's pet project, and which also scouted some amazing guitar talent through the years - including, among too many to list here, Mick Taylor, who later played lead guitar for the Rolling Stones (self-proscribed Greatest Rock 'N' Roll Band in the World) during their most prolific period.

Members of the Bluesbreakers have a habit of breaking off and forming their own (in some cases, even more popular) bands (such as when Peter Green split with [Mick] Fleetwood and [John] Mc[Vie] to form the original bluesy incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, which would struggle for almost a decade before finally becoming famous), and so, after recording a landmark album in the British blues scene (simply titled Blues Breakers; also known as the "the Beano album", thanks to the comic Clapton is seen reading on the album's cover), Eric Clapton recruited former Bluesbreaker bass player Jack Bruce, and with Ginger Baker on drums, launched the most popular and revered band of Clapton's career - Cream. The band was short-lived, but it made its everlasting mark with staple radio hits like White Room and Sunshine of Your Love - hits you undoubtedly still hear on any self-respecting rock station even today.

In the aftermath of Cream, despite Clapton's lucrative solo career, there is little of singular recognition that stands up to his previous rise to rock stardom. Blind Faith was another go at creating a supergroup, this time recruiting Steve Winwood, well known member of Traffic, but it folded even quicker than Cream, and with less lasting critical acclaim. But following that was the shining exception to Clapton's decades long post-Cream fizzle - a motley band of traveling musicians who called themselves Derek and the Dominos. They released one album in 1970, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (with beloved Allman Brothers Band slide guitarist Duane Allman filling out the sound), which was not-so-inconspicuously Eric Clapton's passionate declaration of his unrequited love for best friend (and Beatle) George Harrison's wife Patti Boyd (whom Clapton would eventually go on to marry, and subsequently divorce). In this humble rock fan's opinion, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs is one of the pinnacle albums in modern musical history - and has the paradoxical distinction of being a great listen whether alone and miserable *or* with intimate company - in other words, you can play it on Valentine's Day regardless of whether or not you have a date. ;)

Unrequited love, heroin addiction, adultery, the deaths of close musical companions; despite Clapton's fame and musical success, he has had his share of demons, and does not play the blues in name alone. In fact, Jimi himself once said, "the more money you make, the more blues, sometimes, you can sing." The blues has been a lasting cornerstone of Clapton's legacy, evident in his 1994 solo album From The Cradle, his teamup with King of the Blues B.B. King in 2000's Riding With The King, and his 2004 tribute to the legendary folk bluesman Robert Johnson (titled Me And Mr. Johnson), the man who was alleged to have traded his soul to the devil at a certain country crossroads in Mississippi. Not forsaking his own legacy as a world-renowned guitar legend, nor his battle with drug addiction, Eric Clapton founded the Crossroads Guitar Festival in recent years as a benefit for his Crossroads Centre drug treatment resort in Antigua.

Live in the 70's

One of the best collections of blues/rock tracks I own is Eric Clapton's Crossroads 2: Live in the 70's box set, featuring four discs of outstanding - you guessed it - live material from the 70's. Depending on perspective, life experience, musical tastes, etc., I could foresee a listener describing the tracks on this box set as lazy, sloppy, unpolished, and similar adjectives, but here's the real truth: Crossroads 2 features some of the most passionate, feverish, downright depressed blueswailing I've had the pleasure of hearing. Many of the songs are slowed down from their smoother studio counterparts (which may not be a good thing for rock, but works excellently for the blues), and the vocals are grittier and less dynamic - in place of elegance, what we have here is pure, unrefined *feeling*. And with the blues, that's the most important quality.

So recently I decided, on a whim, to trim those four discs down to a single slim disc of the best tracks - for ease in traveling, for digging into when you don't have time for hours of listening, and just for plain old fun. It was not easy. Crossroads 2: Live in the 70's honestly has at least 3 discs worth of top notch material - it's just that good. So trimming it down to a single disc ended up being a painful challenge. But I succeeded. However, based on the tracks I had to leave out - including the (perhaps) best track in the set, which is a 24 minute jam with Carlos Santana (simply too long for a single disc compilation culled from this much material) - I had to concede the "best tracks" theme, and decided to go with more of a "cross-section" theme, which also conveniently alludes to the original title of "crossroads". Rest assured, each of the four discs is represented here by no less than one, and no more than three tracks.

Here is the resultant tracklist:

1. Have You Ever Loved A Woman
2. Little Wing
3. Layla
4. Tell The Truth
5. Stormy Monday
6. Goin' Down Slow/Rambling On My Mind
7. Wonderful Tonight
8. Double Trouble

You might notice a healthy contribution (the first half) of songs that appear on the Layla album - this is not necessarily intentional but merely a testament to the quality of those songs. Other songs include some excellent blues standards, and there's even a refreshing version of Clapton's pop ballad Wonderful Tonight (which, I assure you, is not as out of place in this collection as you might expect). Let us now take a look at each of the individual tracks that made the cut, and explore just a little bit of their history and why these versions are worth listening to...

The Songs

Have You Ever Loved A Woman [from Disc 1]

Nowhere else is Freddie King's influence on Clapton's playing style more apparent than in this soulful blues cover, recorded previously by Freddie himself, and covered by Clapton on the Layla album. Freddie King, known as the Texas Cannonball, had an immaculate combination of skill as a blues singer and axe wielder, and I recommend his music to anyone who enjoys Clapton's more soulful and cutting blues tracks. The song, Have You Ever Loved A Woman, fit Clapton's situation eerily well at the time of its recording for Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, with lyrics that run, "have you ever loved a woman so much, you tremble in pain; all the time you know, she bears another man's name; but you just love that woman so much, it's a shame and a sin; all the time you know, she belongs to your very best friend." The live version here opens the compilation strongly, with some very piercing blues licks, and sets the depressed tone for the rest of the disc.

Little Wing [from Disc 1]

Little Wing is a gorgeous little number that Jimi Hendrix (honestly, I hadn't *intended* on his name coming up this many times - but that just goes to show :p) recorded for the Experience's second album Axis: Bold As Love. Beautiful as it was to begin with, it's been covered over the years, famously in an extended instrumental version by Stevie Ray Vaughan. But even before that, Eric Clapton recorded his own cover, in a unique arrangement, also for the Layla album. In this version, the "pretty" and "virtuoso" angle is tossed aside in favor of a harder, driving energy, which suits the depression theme of this particular compilation better. This live version is a bit subdued, but it transmits that sort of dragging feeling you get when you're in the doldrums.

Layla [from Disc 2]

Layla is, quite obviously, the title track from the Layla album, and the one song from that album that manages to sum up the album quite well, encompassing the theme of unrequited love ("please don't say we'll never find a way, and tell me all my love's in vain"), accompanied by searing rock riffage and emotionally strained vocals, followed by a soothing coda that offers some semblance of solace, and is thus the primary track picked and played on radios everywhere, as if to represent the whole album at once (which necessarily neglects the rest of the album's treasures). The live version here sadistically strips away any chance the listener might have at finding solace, by cutting the coda completely out - cruel, to be sure, but suitably conforming to the theme.

Tell The Truth [from Disc 3]

Tell The Truth, yet another song from the Layla album, is the sole track that offers some respite from the depressed mood of this compilation. It features a funky upbeat groove, with slide accompaniment, a catchy vocal line, and an extended jam outro. My advice would be to enjoy it fully before diving back into the down-trodden blues of the second half...

Stormy Monday [from Disc 3]

Stormy Monday is a good classic blues, that's been covered by just about anyone that plays blues seriously, and as a song separate from the specific musicians that play it, is one of my top favorite blues of all time. Originally an old T-Bone Walker tune, one of my favorite performances is the Allman Brothers Band's laidback performance on their acclaimed "At Fillmore East" live album (recorded in 1971). Clapton's version of it here does not disappoint, with a nice long 13 minute runtime, giving this slow blues enough time to settle in, with plenty of stormy licks punctuating throughout.

Goin' Down Slow/Rambling On My Mind [from Disc 3]

Goin' Down Slow (credited to St. Louis Jimmy Oden) is another one of my favorite blues, and another one that's covered often, which seems to tell the story of a man with a terminal condition facing his inevitable demise, while looking back and coming to terms with his lot in life. It's accompanied here in medley form by a song titled Rambling On My Mind, from Robert Johnson's catalogue, which was previously recorded by Clapton (with John Mayall) on that seminal British blues album of the 60's - Blues Breakers. Together, these two songs combine to form a long blues jam with a dynamic energy that periodically flows into crashing crescendos at various points along the journey.

Wonderful Tonight [from Disc 4]

If you're a Clapton fan, you undoubtedly know this song. It's not really a blues, it's more of a pop ballad. I like it - it's a very romantic song. But, since it lacks the punch of rock, or the pathos of the blues, it has, to me, become fairly stale over innumerable listens (considering that, being popular, it also tends to get a lot of radio play). However, I promised that the song wasn't the non sequitur in this compilation one would think it to be, and I stand by that. This live version slows the song (which was already slow to begin with) down a bit; the unsterilized live guitar licks give it a little extra punch; and, true to the majority of the songs on this live set, the vocals and the energy of the song are deflated in the way that gives it a much more reflective, nostalgic sort of atmosphere: where the song was originally a happy romantic ballad, this version is more like the kind of pining you do in your room alone after a terrible breakup, remembering the better times that have come and are now gone...

Double Trouble [from Disc 4]

Finishing up the compilation is another searing blues, this time yet another of my favorites (although this is really not surprising, considering that I'm the one who handpicked these tracks :p). Double Trouble is not only one of the tracks by the great Otis Rush (recommended if you're looking for classic electric blues), but it also inspired the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan's backing band in the 80's. Here Eric Clapton does great justice to this worried blues, extending it to over ten minutes, and filling it with the fevered playing that characterizes this compilation, the box set in general, and Clapton's own bluesy style at large.

And there you have it. Despite all the tracks I had to cull (and believe me, choosing from the various medleys that included 3 or 4 of the same songs in various combinations was not easy), I feel that this is a very strong compilation. Other compilers may certainly have personal interests in other tracks, but for me, with this, I am indeed happy.

To conclude, there are many aspects of Eric Clapton's life and career that are beyond the scope of my discussion here, perhaps even of my interest - but from the perspective of the blues, I feel I have covered the basics. Perhaps not unlike a Guardian Angel that is frequently ignored, but stands ceaselessly by just the same, Eric Clapton, despite his reputation, may not be unilaterally hailed as the end-all be-all of guitar stardom (depending on who you talk to), but his musical output is impossible to ignore, and his influence (and his continuing respect for his influences) is pervasive and wide-ranging, and though other shooting stars have come and gone and made themselves known, sometimes in what seems as short as the blink of an eye, Clapton endures, and for the time being, he remains, inarguably, a living legend (if not quite a God).

Author's Background: Raised on classic rock via his parents' stereo, the author discovered the healing power of the blues while DJing a radio show in college. His enduring interest in the searing tone of an electrified guitar has propagated from eardrums to fingertips, and manifests itself regularly in the warm, loving embrace of a sexy guitar.

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