[Slowhand] Guitar Hero
turbineltd at btconnect.com
Sat May 24 06:09:55 EDT 2008
Although his recent output has been criticized as being bland and
undistinguished, there's little doubt that Eric Clapton remains a master of
BERNARD PERUSSE, The Gazette
Published: 51 minutes ago
... But he's Eric Clapton!
That's where discussion of the legendary guitarist's work often seems to
come to an end.
Because of Clapton's musical standing and personal likability, criticism of
his work generally seems to fall under the radar. Even author Christopher
Hjort's casual - perhaps unintentional - indictment is almost tossed off in
the afterword of his chronicle Strange Brew: Eric Clapton and the British
Blues Boom 1965-1970. The book is an exhaustive, day-by-day account of the
heyday of British blues artists.
"All these years later," Hjort writes, "Clapton's career still rests on his
groundbreaking guitar playing during those remarkable years from 1965 to
Full stop. End of update.
Clapton's last undeniably brilliant album, the Derek & the Dominos project
Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, was released in 1970 - so is it possible
that Hjort's statement, taken to its logical conclusion, is right? Has old
Slowhand essentially been coasting on his reputation for some 38 years? As
his superstardom has grown and his household-name status has become
unassailable, has his music declined in direct proportion?
It's a radical theory, and probably not entirely fair. At 63, Clapton has
yet to record bland arrangements of supper-club standards, like Rod Stewart,
or write for Disney cartoons, like Elton John. In fact, at regular intervals
in recent years, we've heard moments of beautiful fretwork from the man some
consider the master of blues-rock guitar. Still, those flashes of
inspiration tend to be in the context of second-nature blues cover albums or
reunions with old bandmates from the Cream and Blind Faith era.
While compilations are generally not a satisfactory way to judge an artist's
career, the recently released - and laughably mistitled - Complete Clapton
tells a strangely unsettling story. Most of Disc One, moving from Cream's I
Feel Free (1966) through the late-'70s sweet toe-tapping period of Lay Down
Sally and Promises, gives you every reason to catch his show Wednesday night
at the Bell Centre. The fact that you can actually sing along with every
note of so many Clapton solos from this era speaks volumes about the lyrical
brilliance of his playing.
But trouble comes with Disc 2, which revisits the 1980s and brings us up to
date. Here's where you'll find all the justification you need for saving the
$125 top ticket price and staying home. No artist of Clapton's stature
should ever have released songs as utterly useless as It's in the Way That
You Use It, Miss You or Change the World.
Yet in the end, Disc One wins and the Bell Centre show becomes a must-see.
In fact, if Clapton's entire legacy were narrowed down to his sole recording
with John Mayall's band, Cream's Disraeli Gears and the Dominos album, you'd
still want to be in the presence of such greatness Wednesday night.
The sharp, piercing, sustained guitar sound Clapton fans love to bask in
came about by accident, while he was playing on the seminal album Blues
Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton (1966). That's where it all really
started - both for him and for an entire generation of blues-rock
guitarists. Clapton, a disciple of B.B. King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy and
Robert Johnson, was then playing a Gibson Les Paul - not a Stratocaster,
which is the brand that ultimately became so closely associated with him.
Turning the bass all the way up on one of the Les Paul's pickups - almost to
distortion point - and kicking the guitar's volume to max, the 21-year-old
wonderkid began to play the notes that changed everything. "I would hit a
note, hold it, and give it some vibrato with my fingers, until it sustained,
and then the distortion would turn into feedback," the musician wrote in
Clapton: The Autobiography, published last October. "It was all of these
things, plus the distortion, that created what I suppose you could call my
The sound wasn't new. It was just presented in a radical, fresh, rock-savvy
new package that turned far more heads than its source material.
Blues giant Buddy Guy sure recognized it. The owners of Guy's label, Chess
Records, had rejected his attempts to turn up the amp and introduce feedback
since 1960. "They used to run me out of the studio, saying, 'Get outta here.
Don't nobody want to hear that noise,' " he said in a Gazette interview last
When the label's co-founder, Leonard Chess, heard Clapton's million-selling
take on the bluesman's basic blueprint, he saw the light and sent for Guy.
"He put on the Cream record and said, 'You've been trying to give us this
stuff all your life and we were too dumb to know.' He bent over and told me
to kick him," Guy told the Gazette. "I felt like doing it, too."
Cream, which lasted only two years, further redefined the idea of a rock
band before the trio - Clapton, with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger
Baker - broke up in 1968. From that point on, rock musicians were often
expected to actually play on the kind of improvisation level jazz performers
were used to. At its best, Cream was inspired. At its worst, the group was
self-indulgent and boring.
"Complacency set in," Clapton wrote. "I began to be quite ashamed of being
in Cream, because I thought it was a con. It wasn't really developing from
where we were. As we made our voyage across America, we were being exposed
to extremely strong and powerful influences, with jazz and rock 'n' roll
that was growing up around us, and it seemed that we weren't learning from
Clapton began to listen to the unadorned roots rock of the Band, which got
him interested in the simple verities: songs over Strats. His first,
self-titled, solo album, released in 1970, was wonderful in its own right
but in retrospect, you can hear the seeds of pleasant-tune underachieving
that would reach its nadir in the next decade. In that context, the arrival
of the Layla album a few months later seems like a one-off glorious farewell
to the days of high-octane blues glory.
>From that point on, at least in the recording studio, Clapton's work became
inconsequential. While the excellent Crossroads 2: Live in the Seventies box
set shows that his onstage fire - even during the booze-fuelled '70s - never
fully went out, each studio album has seemed more forgettable than the last.
His most recent disc without a collaborator, Back Home, is as tepid and
disposable as they come.
But we still love him. We grieved with him when he lost his young son,
Conor, in a tragic accident in 1991. We cheered him on in his hard-won
sobriety (20 years and counting). We continue to applaud the financial and
artistic muscle he puts behind his Crossroads Center in Antigua, for
And if his impressively self-critical autobiography sometimes reveals him as
a pampered rock star who has collected and dropped women with alarming
frequency, or seems to buy a new house somewhere every few days, he mostly
comes off as a mensch.
So maybe the best thing to do is go back and listen to his solo on Cream's
original Sunshine of Your Love (no later versions will do). And as every
note comes back to you, remember that a lifetime of unplugged snoozers could
never erase that.
Eric Clapton, with opening act Robert Randolph and the Family Band, performs
Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Bell Centre. Tickets cost $69.50 to $124.50.
Phone 514-790-1245 or go to www.admission.com.
bperusse at thegazette.canwest.com
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008
More information about the Slowhand