Thursday, June 02, 2011

Presence of the lord

Eric Clapton. Now there's a name that splits the guitar-playing jury. For some he's the greatest ever exponent of the electric guitar, for others he's an overrated plagiarist who should have retired 40 years ago. I first became aware of him when 'I Shot The Sheriff' was a hit single when I was at school; as my interest in the electric guitar increased I obtained a copy of the 'History Of Eric Clapton' double album which I didn't realise it at the time was a compilation album put together by his record company while he was in the grip of heroin addiction and so wasn't recording new material. I couldn't work out how the guy who by then was releasing albums like 'No Reason To Cry' had also played on tracks like 'Sunshine Of Your Love'; nevertheless I went to see him at The Hammersmith Odeon in 1978 when at the height of my interest in punk rock I saw support act Muddy Waters deliver an astonishing set, followed by a performance from a guitarist who seemed a little, shall we say, confused as to where he was and what he was doing there. I didn't realise that he was completely drunk (have a look at the clip of 'Badge' from the same show as 'Sheriff' - see what I mean? He was worse than that!) and just decided that he was an example of the kind of bloated dinosaur rock star that punk was trying it's best to make redundant. However spurred on by the Muddy Waters show my interest in blues grew, and as a result I eventually heard the 'Beano' album by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers which contains some of his most revered playing and made me realise that all those people that were saying that Clapton was the greatest guitarist ever might just have a point. By then I was playing guitar myself, and when I would say to people that I liked his playing I would often be met with blank stares from people my age who thought I'd gone mad. This of course made me like his playing even more, although I was selective in my listening - Cream, Derek And The Dominos, The Yardbirds and The Bluesbreakers with the odd later track here and there. In the meantime Clapton gave up drinking alcohol and re-emerged in the 1980s wearing Armani suits and making slick, modern sounding records that fitted in well with the then-current music trends. I thought they were ok although listened to now they confirm what we all knew all along - no one should ever have anything whatsoever to do with Phil Collins... he also began playing at The Royal Albert Hall on a (very) regular basis - I saw him there a couple of times and he was a very different player from the one that I'd seen stumbling around the Odeon stage all those years before. He'd been astute enough to move with the times and his success reflected this, although I don't think I was the only person who thought that it was all a bit too slick and polished and who'd have liked it to be a bit rougher around the edges.
Then, from nowhere in 1994 he released an album called 'From The Cradle'. I was astonished when I heard it - the guy that played on all those great records in the '60s and early '70s was back with a vengeance. I saw him around that time and it remains one of the greatest electric guitar performances that I've ever seen. I also saw him play brilliantly with Cream when they reformed and last night saw him at The Albert Hall with Steve Winwood. Also in the band were Chris Stainton on keyboards, Willie Weeks on bass, Steve Gadd on drums and Michelle John & Sharon White on backing vocals - but more about them in a minute.
Support came from Andy Fairweather Low and The Low Riders whose excellent 40 minute set reminded everyone that although he's turned up as a sideman with a great many people over the years he's also a great guitarist and artist in his own right. Like most people my age I remember him best for 'Wide Eyed And Legless' but '(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice' was a good 'ooh he did this one as well' moment, and he warmed the audience up well for what was to come...
Opening with 'Had To Cry Today' Clapton and Winwood's 2 1/2 hour set included 4 songs from the Blind Faith album alongside blues standards, Traffic tracks and much more. Highlights were many and varied although an acoustic version of 'Can't Find My Way Home' has to be mentioned as has an astonishing rendition of 'Voodoo Chile' that featured some jaw-dropping guitar soloing and, it has to be said, a rather scary eye looking down from the screen above the stage. The band were predictably brilliant - Steve Winwood sounded great on guitar and excelled on Hammond Organ, Willie Weeks and Steve Gadd were the very definition of a 'rock solid' rhythm section and Chris Stainton's playing showed why he's been at the top of his game for 40-odd years; I especially enjoyed his avant-garde solo in 'Cocaine', it bought to my mind Mike Garson's astonishing piano break in 'Aladdin Sane' which in my World is never a bad thing to be reminded of. And as for Clapton - well, he was fantastic. Fantastic. There, I've said it. But I wouldn't say it if he wasn't. His performance featured some of the most blistering playing that I've ever heard him deliver, as well as being an absolute master class in taste, phrasing and guitar sound - that's why he's so revered, and that's why people will tell you that he's the best. And on the evidence of last night's show, it's very hard to look them in the eye and tell them that they're wrong - although that still doesn't excuse all that stuff with Phil Collins...

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