December 01, 1990

Myth Match

Filed under: Archive,Music


Eric Clapton
Festival Theatre
November, 1990.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Eric Clapton has always set the standard. After the music papers announced that Clapton used a banjo string on his guitar, the shops sold out of banjo strings. Curiously, he has followed traditional American music and become an innovator in the process. Starting in the Yardbirds in 1964, Clapton has always been a purist. Just when the band was starting to get a bit fab he was off to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Laconic, quirky – he’s the one reading Beano on the album cover- and already a gifted guitarist, Clapton’s blues sound had the edge, even on very capable competition. Mayall found other good players, including the splendid Peter Green, but one of the best tracks his many bands ever made was Eric Clapton’s version of Robert Johnson’s Rambling on My Mind.

Cream came next and the official story is that it was a grandiose band that died of ego. Clapton himself subscribes to that view, telling interviewers that the band couldn’t hear each other on stage and didn’t care either. Listening to live recordings suggests otherwise. Cream -and the particular combination of Clapton and Jack Bruce -was producing a blues hybrid, at times the equal of Hendrix, which was leapfrogging towards the kind of jazz Ornette Coleman was making. In his solo adventures Jack Bruce has produced mixed work but it is clear that he was the eclectic one. It’s hard to imagine Clapton recording lyrics by Samuel Beckett.

Instead he was joining cabals of American musicians. The Allmans and then Delaney and Bonnie brought him into the mainstream of blues funk, with Mar-Keys horns and down home lyrics. The white negro from Surrey was now living permanently on Ocean Boulevard. A dozen albums followed all working the same territory- Chicago blues standards, creamy love songs, Atlantic R’n’B and forgettable B side compositions. Like Joe Cocker, the miracle was that Clapton was even still going. He’d seen the best minds of his generation go to cactus and for ten years he was walking wounded himself.

In the past five years Clapton’s work has continually strengthened and through numerous guest appearances and movie soundtracks he has found a new young audience just discovering 12 bar blues. Recent albums like Under the Sun, stylishly produced by Phil Collins, no longer sounded as if they had been recorded by seventy different musicians in twenty different studios- even if they had been, and the release of the massive retrospective, Crossroads, was also a timely reminder that Clapton is not just a white kid copying Howling Wolf, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, he is one of the foremost blues artists of our time.

And that is what he looked like on stage at the Festival Theatre. Touring the Journeyman album, possibly his best solo work yet, Clapton produced a state of the art concert.

Heralded by some portentous keyboards and a puff from the smoke machine, Clapton’s six piece band moved straight into the Jerry Williams song, Pretending. Spaciously arrayed the players laid the ground for the master. Greg Phillinganes on synths, Phil Palmer on second guitar, Tessa Niles and Katie Kasoon on vocals, drummer Steve Ferrone and mainman Nathan East on bass and strategic vocal – glided in effortless accord while Clapton coaxed from his black and white Fender the sinuous, singing guitar lines that are his hallmark.

Some elements of his playing you think you’ve heard before- B.B. King, Roy Buchanan, J.J. Cale, Jeff Beck- but not the way Clapton combines them. His guitar aspires to the condition of the soprano sax. When the new tech arrived, like Hendrix, Clapton was on to it – fuzz, wah-wah, anything that would bend, sustain, extrude and sweeten a note, he incorporated into his technique. While the jazz and rock heroes all try to play a million silly notes a minute, Clapton is supremely minimal, with a lyrical quality that soothes the ganglia at the same time that the rhythm section is thudding your rib-cage. This is the secret of blues rock, ministration in equal measure to body and soul.

After dedicating No Alibis to a dress circle full of sheepish members of the touring England cricket team ( routed by Hickey at the Oval that afternoon) Clapton added Running on Faith before launching into a dereggae-lated version of I Shot the Sheriff. But he was only kidding. After a spacy prologue the familiar rhythms of the Marley classic took over. Then, with white magnesium light pouring into the auditorium providing somewhat literal emphasis, the band switched to the signature chords of White Room. Changing guitars only once for some filigree acoustic work on Can’t Find My Way Back Home ( featuring Nathan East on vocal and upright bass) Clapton returned to Bad Love, one of his own songs from Journeyman. Punctuated by crisp drum work by Ferrone, the band create a cumulative series of crescendos and pauses, those moments, often marked by a shift in the lighting, when Eric is about to Hit the Pedal. It’s as inevitable as Christmas and he’s been doing it for twenty-five years but it still takes your breath away.

The Bo Diddley song Before You Accuse Me, a bit routine on record, proved to be a classic instance of Chicago blues with fine solos from both Clapton and Palmer. He was never Eric Bloodaxe and the nickname Slowhand is misleading because Clapton never really played fast, he is, instead, amazingly fluid. Interestingly, two of his croony love songs – Old Love and the gushy, Wonderful Night- were highlights. Turned by the whole ensemble into powerfully improvised slow blues, Clapton transformed two apparently unremarkable songs into unashamedly personal statements, both in the unguarded directness of vocals and the exquisite restraint of his guitar.

It was probably to be expected that, in conclusion, Clapton would Hit the Pedal with Cocaine, Layla and Crossroads- they do, after all, represent the great work. Those who came to see the Legend may have been disappointed that there were relatively few of the old classics in the set but no one could quibble with the lascivious riffs in Cocaine, the ensemble strength in Layla and the fact that the last word went to Robert Johnson. There was a great deal to like about this show – the absence of hype, Clapton’s generosity to an excellent band, the unobtrusive quality of the sound rig, the artful lighting and the sheer elation of seeing musicians play this well. Eric Clapton is no journeyman, these days he’s a bloody marvel.

“Myth Match” The Adelaide Review, No.83, December, 1990, p.47.

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