There was a time when I was a Blues snob. I had started getting into the music, buying albums, reading about the artists. I wouldn’t listen to anything else. I had followed the path of Eric Clapton, who was once so snobbish on the Blues, that if you had never heard of Robert Johnson, Clapton wouldn’t even give you the time of day. I went to see a Clapton concert when all he played were Blues songs, and scoffed at the fans who left when Clapton wouldn’t play “Cocaine.” But I softened my tone, saw Clapton again a few years later when he played all his standards, and realized that I could find the Blues in all kinds of music, and it was OK to listen to all kinds of music. I still couldn’t get into country, even though a lot of it does derive from the blues. But to me, Clapton still holds a revered place. I understand he isn’t the best singer around, not is he the best songwriter. But when so inspired he can write some beautiful things, although they seem to come at the expense of his heartache, such as his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd that inspired “Layla,” or the death of his young son that led to “Tears in Heaven.” In between there are several middling albums, like “August” and “Behind the Sun.” The truth is, he probably did his best album work when he wasn’t the frontman, whether it was playing with the Yardbirds or Delaney and Bonnie, as part of the supergroup Cream, or in the amalgam that was Derek & the Dominos. But I’ve never really been a Clapton “album” person. Clapton is at his best live, whether it be sitting down with longtime collaborator J.J Cale and stomping out an Elmore James tune, or going off on a 10-minute riff in the middle of “I Shot the Sheriff.” Purists will call Clapton solos nothing more than ramblings. I appreciate the mastery of the instrument. Contrary to the critics say, there IS musicianship that takes place in the jams. There is a beauty to them. I picked up the Clapton album “Live in the 70s” many years back. Now most people don’t normally sit and listen to 15-minute tracks, but this is just Clapton doing what he does best - play the guitar. It’s not the best time of Clapton’s life, dealing with all sorts of addictions and anxieties, but the beauty is still there, and I love it, just as I do listening to the Allman Brothers play for 23 minutes on “Whipping Post” or 33 minutes on ”Mountain Jam.” They are instrumental symphonies. Of course, I still love watching or listening as Clapton puts his own spin on traditional Blues, especially when he brings on fellow guitarists, playing with the likes of BB King, Robert Cray, or more recently, Derek Trucks. There aren’t too many Clapton tracks I skip on a playlist. I’ll listen to “Old Love,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Lay Down Sally,” and others.
CROSSROADS 2: LIVE IN THE SEVENTIES
This is strictly a personal choice. I love the live feel, the long jams that only add to the familiar Clapton tracks. This is what he does best, and here he is at the height of his powers. The four-disc set is the follow-up to the comprehensive Clapton studio compilation covering his entire career. This set is recorded from concerts over a four-year period from 1974-78, when he has come out of his heroin fog and is regaining his confidence onstage. The four discs do vary a bit in quality. The second disc is my favorite, led off by a unique, compact version of “Layla.” The highlights are a pair of solo-driven tracks with “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Badge,” both at more than 10 minutes in length, but both demonstrating Clapton’s playing range. He goes from finger-busting full-volume runs to subtle yet complex soft chords. He has a great band behind him and he doesn't hesitate letting them step up and showcase their talents. The disc concludes with Clapton’s take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s traditional “Eyesight to the Blind.” It’s a similar take as the way he played it in the Who rock opera “Tommy.” This track, which also showcases Carlos Santana, evolves into “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?” and ends up lasting 24 minutes.
461 OCEAN BOULEVARD / SLOWHAND
These are considered Clapton’s two best solo studio works, and cover a wide spectrum of Clapton’s abilities. “461 Ocean Boulevard” from 1974 is Clapton’s first offering coming out of his three-year heroin addiction. It’s a quieter album, and includes only three original Clapton songs, all introspective. Backed by by his Tulsa-sound band, it is probably the best song-making album of his career. There are some blues standards, and the reggae cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” which is his only U.S. No. 1. In 1977’s “Slowhand” are found three of Clapton’s biggest hits with “Cocaine,” “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Lay Down Sally.” You can sense that after the success of "461 Ocean Boulevard" that he is more confident being a frontman and legend. He doesn't have to prove his musicianship. It's OK to be a rocker.
Layla / Layla and Other Assorted
Love Songs (Derek & the Dominos)
Old Love / Journeyman
Crossroads / Wheels of Fire (Cream)
I Shot the Sheriff / 461 Ocean Boulevard
Badge / Goodbye (Cream)