B&V’s Favorite MTV “Unplugged” LPs

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As a kid growing up, my parents didn’t even have basic cable. All the TVs at the house had the old rabbit-ear type antenna. When there were multiple football games being broadcast on New Year’s Day, my dad would bring three TVs down to the living room and watch all three major networks (yes, only three) to catch every game. If one of the TV’s screens was out of wack, I’d often have to stand in the corner, one hand on the TV set, one hand in the air, just to make the picture clear. I was the Human Antenna. Thankfully in those days I wasn’t facing the New Year’s Day hangover… that didn’t come until later.

Eventually, shamed by other parents, my parents got basic cable so we kiddos could watch Sesame Street to build our young minds. We had the most bare-bones cable package you could get. My father, who closely modulated the thermostat to save cash, wasn’t about to “piss away money” on cable TV. There was no HBO or Showtime at the house. If I wanted to see any R-rated stuff, I had to do it the old fashion way, sneak into a theater (thank you Bo Derek for 10). The neighbors had HBO and on a sleepover I once saw Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman, in a biker movie and she was topless. It was like “discovering plutonium” as they say on Seinfeld. I couldn’t help but think, at that tender age, “fuck yes, I’m getting HBO when I’m on my own…I’ll never leave the house.”

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I discovered there was something called MTV, short for Music Television. My buddy Matthew and I went up to Kansas State to visit some older friends of ours who were already up at University. As I was wandering around the labyrinth of the dorm filled with hallways and separate rooms (it was like walking in a human-sized ant farm), I came upon a room with like 5 guys crammed around a TV. They invited me in and lo and behold, they were watching MTV. Back then MTV was like radio with videos, one after another… Mostly the videos were crude concert footage with low grade effects, but I thought it was really cool.

Eventually, much to everyone’s surprise I graduated from high school and was accepted to a state university. Where I lived, they had the opposite philosophy as my father and bought the most expensive cable package available. We had every channel on the planet, save for pornography, on the TV in the common room. Invariably, late at night on weekends, I’d end up in the basement in front of the TV with a few of the other drunken, lonely heart’s club types and we’d watch MTV videos until the sun came up. The crowd down there got thicker during finals week… we all needed something mindless after exams so after drinking we’d end up watching countless videos. Of course, there were great videos and then crappy, pop music type videos. I can always remember thinking, “Ok, if the next video sucks, I’m going to bed…” Invariably one more decent video would come on and I’d be stuck for another thirty minutes. It was so relaxing it could be described as mind erasing.

When I moved into exile in Arkansas, there was literally no rock and roll radio. MTV, who had begun to schedule some regular broadcast shows into their programming was still predominantly playing videos. Nowadays you’re more likely to see a music video n the weather channel… MTV got me through the tough years down there. MTV is where I discovered Guns N Roses, the Black Crowes and many other bands. They certainly weren’t playing that music on the radio in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. It was around that time, I believe in 1989, that MTV began what may be their greatest legacy, the ‘Unplugged’ series. I’d always heard they were inspired by a video awards show where Jon Bon Jovi, looking coke-addled (he always looked that way to me) and Richie Sambora got on stage with only two acoustic guitars and played “Wanted, Dead Or Alive.” That was cool, lets do a show like that… The concept was simple, put a band on stage, give them acoustic guitars and let them play stripped-down versions of their tunes.

They started the series with some minor to semi-big bands. I think Squeeze was on once. But it wasn’t until 1991 when Paul McCartney performed on ‘Unplugged’ that the show took on some “next-level” kind of rock and roll credibility. McCartney took the next step and actually released his performance as an album (well, as a CD), the first artist to do so. It was a limited edition of only 500,000 copies and I had one in my hand in a record store in Warrensburg, Mo but didn’t have the cash and passed up buying it, which I obviously regret to this day. After that it was Katie-bar-the-door. Everybody was on ‘MTV Unplugged’ after that. Strangely though, not all the artists released the results on an album/CD.

There were all manner of performances on ‘MTV Unplugged’ from the sublime to the questionable. It got to the point where ‘MTV Unplugged’ became “appointment television” for me and my friends. If there was a band we really loved, we’d make sure we were together, beer iced down, in front of the television ready to watch. I remember I was flying back from St. Thomas the night Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did their Unledded episode of the show but I got stuck in a hotel in Atlanta and missed the show. I was in the only hotel on the planet without MTV. I was pissed.

Thinking about those ‘Unplugged’ shows I decided to compile a list of the B&V favorite ‘Unplugged’ albums. This is not a list of the best performances from the show – many acts chose not to release an album after being on ‘Unplugged.’ But, for the ones who did, and there were many, these are the 10 albums I find myself going back to after all this time. Again, we’re only talking about actual LPs here, not performances on MTV. Yeah, they’re a little mellow, but who cares, a good acoustic evening is just what the doctor orders sometimes.

Honorable Mention

  1. Pearl Jam – Eddie Vedder was simply unhinged on this performance. He writes “Pro-Life” on his arm in magic marker while teetering on a very unstable bar stool. They put a blu-ray disc of the performance in the rerelease of Ten, but have yet to release it as an album. I wish they would.
  2. Aerosmith – I have a bootleg of this performance and it’s awesome. They were still bluesy and sounding like the old 70s Aerosmith at this point. Huge mistake not to release this one.
  3. The Rolling Stones, Stripped – The Stones never deigned to be on MTV’s ‘Unplugged,’ but they went ahead and recorded their own, predominantly acoustic album and it’s one of their better live documents.

The BourbonAndVinyl Top 10 ‘Unplugged’ Albums

  1. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York – This is simply the best MTV Unplugged ever. This was a sublime performance. Stripped of the sturm und drang, Cobain’s brilliance as a songwriter and dare I say, writer of melodies rises to the fore. This is not only a great acoustic concert it’s just a great concert. Bittersweet as it was released after Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.
  2. Alice In Chains, MTV Unplugged – I love AIC when they’re heavy, like on “Man In A Box” but I always loved the acoustic based Jar of Flies. This performance was a perfect extension of that. While I’m the first to admit nobody probably needed an acoustic version of “Frogs” there are some great versions of “Killer Is Me,” and “Over Now” just to name a few. It would be Layne Staley’s last concert.
  3. Paul McCartney, Unplugged – I love McCartney in this stripped down show. Like his recently released Amoeba Gig (Live) album (LP Review: Paul McCartney, ‘Amoeba Gig (Live)’ – His Best Live Album?), playing in front of a small audience brings out the best of him. Beatles tunes, solo hits, and rare covers make this a special performance.
  4. R.E.M., Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions – This album only got released in 2014 and I’m hoping it serves as an example to all those bands who held back on releasing their performances. R.E.M. was a very strumming/acoustic based band to start with… They’re perfect for the ‘Unplugged’ setting. I probably lean more toward the 1991 session, which was when they were touring for Out of Time. However, the 2001 set, when they were touring behind Reveal has some beautiful and melancholy moments that are irresistible. Obviously, I’d play one disc at a time.
  5. Rod Stewart, Unplugged…And Seated – Rod has always had that perfect melding of acoustic and electric, folky and rocker. The thing I love about this album is he brings back Ronnie Wood, his erstwhile band mate in the Faces and they return to Rod’s best period, when he was on the Mercury label, and tear it up! I believe there was a lot of drink involved.
  6. Eric Clapton, Unplugged – McCartney may have given ‘Unplugged’ it’s credibility, but Clapton showed that these albums could be a commercial juggernaut. This thing sold a ka-jillion copies. At the time we all loved the acoustic version of “Layla,” done here as a shuffle… It kind of got worn out. I like the older blues covers he throws in here. Chuck Leavell who plays with the Stones now is on piano and he has a fabulous solo in the song, “Old Love.”
  7. Page/Plant, No Quarter (aka Unledded) – These guys turned the whole concept of ‘Unplugged’ on its head. Some tracks are live, electric versions of their old Zeppelin tunes. Some are straight up acoustic and some are just great experiments, fucking with their sound, i.e. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The spirt of experimentation ran through three new tracks released on this album, the first Page/Plant collaborations since Zeppelin broke up. It would have been nice to see John Paul Jones here too, but that’d have upped the pressure.
  8. Eagles, Hell Freezes Over – I may be fudging a little here… this started off as an ‘Unplugged,’ but there is really only one acoustic take on a classic, on a sublime version of “Hotel California.” This was the first time in 14 years the Eagles got together, if they want to plug the electric guitars in and go for it, why not… It’s certainly what Springsteen did on his ‘Unplugged’ with much less spectacular results.
  9. Bob Dylan, MTV Unplugged – People will scoff at this entry. Dylan was coming off two great, unappreciated folk/acoustic records when he did this ‘Unplugged.’ He’s engaged and playing faithful versions of classics here. It was, for me, the beginning of his recording come back. It seemed like he cared for the first time in a long time. There are great versions of “Shooting Star” and “Dignity” on this record too.
  10. 10,000 Maniacs, MTV Unplugged – I’m like most guys from this era. I don’t have any 10,000 Maniacs, I never liked the 10,000 Maniacs, I never bought their albums. However, almost every woman I dated, and there were a few, had this or some of their other albums. After  hearing a few times… because I was a bit of a man about town in those days, I realized Natalie Merchant’s vocal performance makes this the only 10,000 Manaics album you need. I love the cover of “Because the Night” written by Springsteen but made famous by Patti Smith.

Cheers!

 

Eric Clapton: Showtime’s Exceptional Documentary, ‘Life In 12 Bars’

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One of the few joys of this brittle and brutal winter is that the Winter Olympics are taking place. I was never a huge fan of the Olympics, but the Rock Chick watches these things religiously. Naturally, when we got married she pulled me into watching them with her. Every time I leave the B&V lab and go downstairs she’s got the Games on… I’m beginning to think she’s got money on the Curling event… I told her, when in doubt always bet on Norway. With a nickname like ‘The Fighting Vikings’ you can’t possibly go wrong.

Unfortunately my wife’s Winter Olympics Obsession has prevented me from screening the Showtime Documentary on Eric Clapton, ‘Life In 12 Bars.’ Finally, after meeting my old friend Tomas out for a few drinks last night, with my wife asleep, I was able to pull up the rockumentary. I’ve always been a huge fan of Clapton’s music. However, I have to admit, his latter career has puzzled me a bit. I haven’t found anything I can really get into since Me And Mr. Johnson his tribute to Robert Johnson. And if I’m being honest, that one disappointed me when compared to his brilliant blues album, From The Cradle. I posited a theory about the latter stages of Clapton’s career before on B&V, Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?. I think my frustration with Clapton’s late career stems from reading his autobiography. He’s one of the few people who I’ve read an autobiography by and thought less of the person afterward. However, seeing this documentary has completely turned me around. I think this arresting look at Clapton does a lot to help give the man’s life more context than his writing did. Oh, Eric, I just can’t stay mad at you.

In the first hour of the documentary alone, he goes from illegitimate child (like Jack Nicholson, he thought his grandma was his mother and that his mom was his sister) to the Yardbirds, to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to Cream to hanging with Hendrix and recording with the Beatles on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And again that’s just the first hour of this two hour-fifteen minute film. That’s a pretty wild ride. I’ve always felt that rock and roll sprang from the fertile roots of the blues and blossomed out in all sorts of different ways. Eric Clapton just may be the living embodiment of that theory.

He began his career as a blues purist and left the Yardbirds after he felt they’d turned “too commercial” or “too pop-sounding.” After joining, leaving and rejoining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he recorded one of the most influential blues albums of all time, Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton only to leave and form Cream. Cream is where Clapton really broke into America. When he arrived in America, there’s a scene where they ask him what he’s listening to and he immediately shines a light on Jimi Hendrix and the Experience who hadn’t broken over here yet. Then he quickly added a list of black American bluesmen. Clapton and some of his other compatriots in the British Invasion brought black blues music back to America. It’s really cool to see Muddy Waters and B.B. King interviewed and hear them talk about how much those “English kids” did to help them. Thank God they did.

The documentary then follows Clapton through the brief career and collapse of Blind Faith, his band with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. Clapton retreated to his home in the English country-side where he was joined by keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. In the span of one year, 1970, these guys recorded Clapton’s solo debut (Eric Clapton), George Harrison’s landmark debut solo album All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Domino’s Layla…And Other Assorted Love Songs. That’s one hell of a year. I don’t think I’ve ever been that productive, that’s for sure. The build-up to the writing and recording of Clapton’s signature tune, “Layla” was a bit overwrought. I get it, it’s a great song, but there’s a lot more to Clapton than just that song. And I think everybody knows about his affair with Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s then wife. During those recording sessions in that momentous year of 1970 is when the heroin snuck in. Man, is that an insidious drug.

And this is where the documentary turns dark. They cover Clapton’s dissolution into heroin addiction and his retirement to seclusion. He was gone, out of sight for four years. When he finally kicked smack he emerged as an alcoholic. And when I say alcoholic, I mean the biggest asshole drunk I’ve ever seen. I described this documentary as unflinching mostly for the way it handles this portion of Clapton’s career. Clapton stood up on stage and made some horrid racist statements because he was drunk off his ass. Here’s a man who had carried the banner for black musicians in the 60s, spouting racist bullshit from the stage in the 70s. It just goes to show you how lost he really was.

It’s an important part of the story, his addiction and alcoholism, but they really blow past his solo music. He recorded some really great music in the 70s and 80s, 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand just to name a few but the documentary just focuses on the alcoholism and the personal problems he faced. I guess I never realized how bad things got. Again, it’s important in understanding Clapton the artist to go through all this harrowing stuff but I felt the music of his solo career got short shrift. This is no happy tale. The man, like Gregg Allman, lived the blues. Naturally the last part of the documentary focuses on the tragic loss of his son, Conor. It finally ends on a lighter note when it highlights Clapton’s rehab clinic in Antigua. B.B. King gives a nice toast to Eric at the Crossroads Music Festival that is worth the price of admission.

I think everyone who is interested in music, the blues and Clapton will find this vital viewing. There are a lot of interviews, photos and film footage that I’ve never seen. I might also say, after watching the documentary, I was reminded of spending a whole afternoon back in my single days, just listening to Clapton’s monumental box set, Crossroads, which I think is the perfect sound track to listen to after you’ve seen the movie. Or, if you’re OCD like me, you’ll end up listening to the Yardbirds, Mayall, and now I’m in the middle of Cream headed to Blind Faith and on my way to Derek and the Dominos… I’ve got a lot of music to listen to between lady’s downhill races…

P.S. – At the beginning of the documentary Clapton appears to be on Skype. He gives a heartfelt speech about the passing of the legend B.B. King. In the midst of that he recommends a record by B.B., Live At The Regal. Clapton, in this case, is spot on – it’s one of the greatest live albums and one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It’s wonderful to listen to B.B. and his audience and the amazing rapport they had. It’s essential B&V listening.

Enjoy!

 

 

Artist Lookback – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers: The Guitar Hero Trilogy 1966-1967

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Ah, the blues. I must admit, when it comes to classic rock, my first love was and always will be the Rolling Stones. I picked up ‘Some Girls,’ my first album ever and it was the beginning of a life long obsession. The Rolling Stones, in many ways, were a gateway drug for me into the broad array of rock music in the world. The Stones led me to Zeppelin, then to the Beatles, Black Sabbath and beyond. It wasn’t long before I was in the basement of seedy used record stores looking for out of print Faces albums or Springsteen bootlegs. I made my friend Doug go to a used record store in a strip mall in Dallas after he’d just broken up with a girlfriend so I could look for the out of print Buckingham Nicks LP… a trip he still hasn’t forgiven me for, although it may be his unpleasant memories of that trip unrelated to “Buckingham Nicks.” I wasn’t musically sophisticated enough to understand what the root of my musical infatuation was. I didn’t understand that the common thread that links all the music I love is the blues.

By the 1960’s the blues was an underground music in the United States, segregated like so much was, in the black community. It took some groovy English youth to rediscover and reawaken interest in the blues in the States. Much of what came out of the British Invasion was what is now described as “blues rock.” There were so many key figures, people you don’t hear about any more, that were critical to that early blues rock movement.  Alexis Korner was a guy that was at the center of a lot of it and he helped fan the flame of blues in London. If time travel is ever invented, you’ll know where to find me… 60s swinging London.

Another name that I don’t hear much any more is John Mayall, leader of the intrepid Blues Breakers. I posted about these British blues rock pioneer’s American cousins, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who were also 60s era masters of the blues, a few months ago. In the comment section, Moulty58 (whose blog, The Future Is Past is phenomenal, check it out) mentioned Mayall and the Blues Breakers. In the ensuing conversation he mentioned the album Mayall did with Peter Green, ‘A Hard Road.’ The only Mayall & the Bluesbreaker album I’d ever heard or heard of was the masterpiece, “Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton.” Could I have missed something? As a musical spelunker, I pride myself on owning anything I consider critical in music. Oh sure, I have some blindspots, like say, jazz, but I own most the LPs in the “Must Have” canon. I’m that weird guy who buys the live solo Gregg Allman albums or the solo Lowell George of Little Feat LP… Maybe I have a problem, but as Van Morrison sang, “it’s too late to stop now.” Perhaps I needed to give Mayall’s catalog another look.

In retrospect, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers could be looked at more as a musical collective than a band. They changed personnel more often than Yes, and that’s saying something. Almost every band has a connection to the Blues Breakers. Just on bass guitar alone, John McVie, Jack Bruce and Andy Fraser of Free fame all played with them. On drums, amongst a large number of people, Mick Fleetwood and Aynsley Dunbar both played with Mayall. I think Dunbar played in every band ever… I think he was even in Journey for a while. Mayall actually sang, played keyboards (mostly piano), guitar and harmonica. The thing about the Blues Breakers that is probably the most remarkable is the guitar talent that went through this band. Not only did Eric Clapton play with them but so did Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), and a very young Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones). Those are just the big names. Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac) and Jimmy McCulloch (Wings) also played with the Blues Breakers, just to name a few. Paul Butterfield even shows up playing harmonica on one album. It’s quite an impressive roster. It seems if you were a British rock band in the 70’s and needed a player, you looked no further than the Blues Breakers. It was like a British Prep school for guitarists.

I quickly began an investigation of the Blues Breaker’s catalog and found that I had indeed missed a couple of essential LPs, beyond “With Eric Clapton.” There are really three albums that I consider “essential” for blues or blues rock fans. As you might guess, it’s the three albums featuring the three greatest of the Blues Breaker’s guitarists. With all due respect to fans of “Blues From Laurel Canyon,” which does feature Mick Taylor, I consider that a John Mayall solo album. The Blues Breakers moniker had been abandoned by that time. Without further adieu, here are the three John Mayall and the Blues Breaker’s LPs every fan should check out:

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton (1966)

When Eric Clapton, who judging by his autobiography was an enormous twat, left the Yardbirds because they were veering away from his “blues purist” view of music, there was a lot of speculation about what he’d do next. He joined the Blues Breakers and their popularity began to soar… just as that looked like it was going to peak, Clapton runs off to Greece with a group calling themselves “The Glands.” They must have been a group of teenage boys with a wanker name like that. Jeez, Eric. Anyway, he realized he’d made a mistake and came back to rejoin Mayall and the Blues Breakers. This album was the result and it’s a tour de force. I love Cream, but I truly think this was the best lead guitar playing of Clapton’s career. He plays with a strength and confidence I rarely hear. This album is considered a blues rock milestone. I read in Rolling Stone magazine that this record and Clapton’s solo LP, “From the Cradle,” taken together are Clapton’s greatest blues achievement. It’s hard to argue. The instrumental “Hideaway” is simply amazing. “What’d I Say,” the Ray Charles cover is inspired. “All Your Love” is the perfect blues tune. Clapton does his first vocal on Robert Johnson’s “Rambling On My Mind” one of his first and best Robert Johnson covers. Clapton split after this record to form Cream with Jack Bruce (also a Mayall alumni) and Ginger Baker. It’s a shame we don’t have more of Mayall and Clapton together, because it’s one of the greatest albums of all time.

A Hard Road (1967)

How do you replace a messianic guitarist (well, they did used to scrawl “Clapton is God” as graffiti) like Eric Clapton? You find Peter Green. I don’t know anybody outside of Ozzy Osbourne (Randy Rhoads, Jake E Lee, Zakk Wylde) with a nose for guitar talent like John Mayall. I was surprised when I first heard this record that the Blues Breakers, despite line up changes and losing Clapton didn’t miss a beat. This is a great blues/blues rock album with inspired guitar work. The Peter Green penned instrumental “The Supernatural” is worth the price of the LP alone. I may be crazy but I hear the seeds of “Black Magic Woman” in that tune. Great, great guitar work. Green’s guitar sound is different than Clapton’s and this may sound weird, but I almost feel like Peter Green’s guitar sounds… well, sadder. The guy really conveys emotion in the way he plays. Where Clapton was more powerful, Green is more expressive. Just one man’s opinion, and I don’t play guitar. I absolutely love the Elmore James’ cover, “Dust My Blues,” and the incendiary slide guitar Green plays. They also do two great Freddie King covers, the instrumental “The Stumble” which is another stand out and “Someday After While (You’ll Be Sorry)” that blew me away. “It’s Over,” the opening track is a great John Mayall penned tune as well. This is just a spectacular album that I never heard about. You definitely hear the seeds of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac on this album, which makes sense because after this record Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood split to form Fleetwood Mac… I guess the formula in the 60s was, do one album with Mayall, split and form a legendary band of your own… At least there was some additional material Peter Green recorded with Mayall that turned up on the remastered, “bonus track” version of the album that came out years later.

Crusade (1967)

What do you do when you’ve lost not one, but two legendary lead guitar players. Apparently if you’re John Mayall you discover a teenage Mick Taylor. I had always known Taylor had gotten his start in the Blues Breakers but I’d never dug deep enough to check out his record with them. Actually, he stuck around for three albums, unlike Clapton and Green, before being recruited to join the Stones as Brian Jones’ replacement. “Crusade” is just another blues rock classic in the same vein as it’s two predecessors. The album kicks off with “Oh Pretty Woman” (not the Roy Orbison tune) and it’s again as if nothing has changed with the band. Although I will say I can tell Taylor’s guitar is different than Green’s. Mick Taylor had such an amazingly melodic way of playing the guitar. Even on these blues recordings I can hear how his lead guitar would mesh with Richard’s ragged rhythm guitar. There’s an instrumental on here “Snowy Wood” which is just fabulous playing (do I hear “Can You Hear Me Knocking” here?). Mayhall had employed a horn section on his previous LP, but never this prominently, they’re all over this record. I like the sax, harmonica interplay on “Man of Stone.” I love, love the version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” the old Willie Dixon tune that was also done by Led Zeppelin and years later the Rolling Stones, post-Taylor. “Driving Sideways” sounds like a tune a blues band would open a show with… This is just another great blues guitar album.

If you’re a fan of the blues, blues rock, Cream, the pre Buckingham Nicks Fleetwood Mac or the glory years of the Rolling Stones, there is a hell of a lot to like here. A lot of people own ‘With Eric Clapton’ and if you enjoy that record I can’t more highly recommend ‘A Hard Road’ and ‘Crusade.’ Mayall went on to have a long, storied career but other than ‘Blues From Laurel Canyon’ you’re not going to find better blues/blues rock than these three albums. Any fan of guitar will absolutely fall in love with these albums.

This isn’t cry in your beer blues, this shuffle around, chooglin’ music. Pour yourself something strong, dark and murky and start moving, baby!

Cheers!

Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?

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I’ve almost always liked Eric Clapton. And, like his recently titled album suggests, “I still do.” However, I won’t be reviewing his new album for BourbonAndVinyl. For me, “I Still Do” is just another mellow strummer along the lines of “Back Home,” “Old Sock,” or “Clapton.” Sure, “I Still Do” has better production than most of his LPs, but I still have no interest. I have to admit to a bit of frustration with Eric Clapton. Here’s a guy who made his reputation on fiery guitar solo’s in the 60s with such history-making acts as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream. His playing earned him the graffiti tag: “Clapton Is God.” Now it appears he’s turned his back on that sort of guitar virtuosity in favor of a very mellow and often over-slick, produced sound. It’s just not interesting to me at all. At this point I’d even settle for a little of the blues fire he showed on “Slowhand,” my first Clapton album purchased with my own money. I also purchased “Just One Night” his live album from that era and I think it’s the best live album he’s ever done. Do yourself a favor and check that one out.

I heard Keith Richards say of Clapton in an interview years ago, “Eric is ok, but he’s just so afraid.” I chocked it up to Keith being stoned and rambling, but I’m beginning to think he may be right. Clapton seems downright afraid of letting loose with his guitar. Similar to Robert Plant, it seems Clapton wants no part in living up to his past. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’d like to think he wouldn’t so actively flee from it. I saw Clapton in Dallas about 10 years ago or so, and he ended the rather weak show with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I’m still pissed. I mean, really? He’s always had an affinity for the “Great American Songbook,” but come on, man.

I was thinking about Clapton’s work in this millennium the other day, really everything since “From the Cradle,” trying to make sense of it. It suddenly occurred to me, Clapton is also rather famous for being a recovered addict. He managed to somehow kick heroin in the 70’s. I’m not sure when he finally won the battle against alcohol but he’s been sober quite a while now. I typically don’t trust someone who doesn’t drink, but I always respect the recovered alcoholic, so good for Eric. We all make that choice every day. Clapton famously founded the Crossroads Rehab center and does (I believe) an annual concert in Chicago with all the guitar firepower in the world performing. I’d actually like to attend that festival but the Rock Chick doesn’t share my affinity for 70’s guitar-blues-rock (maybe she’d go for the shopping?). When thinking about Clapton’s late career it suddenly occurred to me, maybe he’s making amends. Perhaps he associates the blistering guitar solos of his youth with his drug and liquor addictions hence he’s turned his back on that part of his skill set.

According to what I’ve read, “Making Amends” is defined by the 12-Step Program as the attempt to “make direct amends to such people (I’m assuming that you’ve harmed), wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” I believe this is Step 9 and it led me to this theory of Clapton’s late career. To understand my theory you really have to look at his collaborations. Clapton’s late career is chock full of collaborations. Could it be that he’s making amends with these people? I read his autobiography a few years ago and I have to admit, I’ve never read someone’s autobiography and come out liking the person less afterward. It seems he was a colossal asshole when he was on the sauce.

  1. George Harrison – as early as 1992 Clapton went on tour in Japan with Harrison. He attended/helped organize the Harrison Tribute concert. Let’s face it, he stole George’s wife… so there was a lot to be sorry for there.
  2. B.B. King – “Riding With the King,” his collaboration with B.B. is one of the better collaborations he’s done. Not sure why he’d need to make amends with B.B. Everybody loved and respected B.B. King. Maybe he felt bad about exploiting and/or stealing from the old blues masters. You’re really looking for something to feel bad about if that’s your motivation.
  3. Cream – the 2005 Reunion Concerts/Live LP – Clapton’s stormy relationship with Jack Bruce (bass), and Ginger Baker (drums) are the thing of legend. In the end they’d just go on stage and jam while ignoring each other. From the smiling faces and mellow performances one could suggest Clapton succeeded in “getting the healing done.”
  4. Steve Winwood – 2009 Madison Square Garden Concerts/LP – From everything I read, Winwood was hoping for a lot more collaboration and leadership from Clapton when they were in Blind Faith. Unfortunately Clapton quietly faded into the woodwork. Maybe this joint concert was an attempt to show us what might have been. I love this live album. Winwood appears to be one of the few people who can coax a little fire out of Clapton’s guitar. Clapton provides a solo on Winwood’s fabulous tune “Dirty City” that makes you think, “where the fuck has this sound been?” “Dirty City” is a must-buy.
  5. Glyn Johns – “I Still Do” – Clapton read Johns’ autobiography and in it Glyn describes his initial collaborations with Clapton which were not positive. Johns was brought in to work on “The Rainbow Concerts” album and Clapton wouldn’t show up for “touch-up” recording sessions for that live album. Johns went on to work with Clapton later and it went a lot better, maybe Eric was sober finally, and he wondered in his book if they were still friends. Suddenly, Clapton is bringing Glyn to produce “I Still Do.” That smacks of “amends” in my book.
  6. J.J. Cale – “The Road to Escondido” – Clapton has recorded more J.J. Cale songs than just about anybody. He recorded this collaborative album in 2006 and did a tribute album when Cale sadly passed in 2014. Heaven knows what Clapton has to make up for here.
  7. Wynton Marsalis – “Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center” – again, no idea what amends would be made here but this is a critically acclaimed live album.

It may be a stretch to say that Clapton has mellowed out and stop playing fierce guitar as a reaction to his sobriety. However, if you look at his collaborations, you could make the case that he’s out there making amends. It’s produced better music than his solo albums, so I’m not complaining here. He did cover Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine” a tune which has an air of remorse and confession about it. Of course the Wynton Marsalis, J.J. Cale, and B.B. King collaborations seem to be more of a joyful thing, so I could be wrong. I often am. But I felt this was good food for thought.

I would still advise checking out some of these collaborations. I believe you’ll find them more satisfying than “I Still Do.” And yes, I still do like Eric Clapton, blazing solo’s or not.

Cheers!