One of the greatest guitar records of all-time, Layla captures Eric Clapton at a sustained level of brilliance. A double album that contains several truly transcendent tracks, Layla is filled with down and out blues rock songs that showcase Clapton and guest star Duane Allman's soaring guitar work. Clapton’s writing and singing is confident and passionate, while ace in the hole Bobby Whitlock provides soulful organ and haunting, impassioned backing vocals (he also sings lead occasionally). Many of the dual guitar flights of Clapton and Allman are spellbindingly exhausting, hitting climax upon climax before drifting into blissful melancholy, as on the dramatic piano coda to the title track, which was later used to unforgettable effect in the movie Goodfellas. The album’s centerpiece song, “Layla” was an impassioned love plea to “friend” George Harrison’s wife (hence the proposed anonymity of the Derek & The Dominos moniker, which fooled nobody) that is one of the most dramatic songs in all of rock. Although “Layla” is Clapton’s signature song, it should be noted that its excellence is due to a true team effort, as most of the most astonishing guitar parts (such as the closing bird calls) are actually played by Duane, while drummer Jim Gordon not Clapton actually wrote and played the gorgeous piano coda. But going beyond “Layla” this album is full of other great songs, including the beautiful ballad “I Looked Away,” as well as “Keep On Growing” and “Anyday,” both of which offer sing along melodies and brilliantly interweaving guitars. Clapton also revisits the blues in spectacular fashion on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” and “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” whose lyrics obviously hit very close to home at the time, a point that’s reinforced by the incredible intensity of Clapton’s guitar playing. Other classics include “Bell Bottom Blues,” which features Clapton’s yearning guitar and anguished vocals, “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad,” which contains amazingly fast Clapton/Allman guitar duels and some propulsive Latin tinged percussion, and a dramatic reading of “Little Wing” that arguably even trumps the original Jimi Hendrix classic (somewhere I bet Jimi was smiling). Supported by arguably his most sympathetic backing band, Clapton and company delivered a towering masterwork that he hasn’t come close to matching since. The rest was just gravy, anyway.
Live At The Fillmore (Polydor '70, ’94) Rating: A-
In giving props to Duane Allman for energizing the Layla sessions, a characteristically modest Eric Clapton admitted "he took Layla from being an alright record to being something completely extraordinary." Still, if Layla was a brilliant ensemble effort (undoubtedly led by Clapton, of course), Live At The Fillmore is all about Eric Clapton. All about Eric Clapton's guitar playing, to be exact, as Clapton's singing on this 2-cd box set (which effectively greatly expands and improves upon the previously released In Concert) often leaves a lot to be desired, though Bobby Whitlock, who often almost acts as co-lead singer, saves Clapton's ass on more than one occasion. Still, what guitar playing! It's amazing to think that he could play so well while in such piss poor shape (the drug addled Clapton's voice cracks a lot and he can barely speak between the songs), and though many of these elongated songs (13 in all) meander, there's enough great bluesy guitar to more than make up for the times where it's a little slow going. Also, I've always felt that, even without Duane (who doesn't appear as he never was a full time Domino), the Dominos were Eric's most sympathetic support group, and they do nothing here to dispel that thought. Drummer Jim Gordon brings the funky boogie beats along with a steady Carl Radle on bass, while Whitlock adds melodic (i.e. colorful) and/or atmospheric (i.e. dark, moody) organ/piano accompaniment along with his essential if occasionally over-the-top vocals. Still, it's Clapton's show, and though these versions of "Key To The Highway," "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," and "Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out" don't offer anything especially new, aside from longer running times and looser arrangements, each features excellent, incredibly emotional guitar playing just the same. "Got To Get Better In A Little While," unreleased at the time (as was Layla, and it's interesting to hear the crowd having more of a reaction to his Blind Faith/solo material than the Layla songs), gets the album off to a rousing start with an epic jam (13:48), while "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad" (14:45) is another definite highlight. Both showcase Eric's wah wah improvising, and when the keyboards kick in on the latter song a little after the 2-minute mark it's one of those great moments; it doesn't quite match the exceptional Duane enhanced studio version, but this exceedingly emotional rendition is almost as great in its own way. "Blues Power" (10:28) is a definite upgrade from its studio counterpart, with more great solos along the way, albeit marred by a poorly edited, sudden ending, while some killer slide guitar highlights "Tell The Truth." Perhaps "Bottle Of Red Wine" and "Roll It Over" come across as being rather nondescript as compositions, but this album isn't really about songs, anyway, and Clapton certainly pours his heart into "Presence Of The Lord" and "Little Wing," though the latter can't compare to the Layla rendition, in part due to technical difficulties with Whitlock's keyboards. Finally, a dreaded long drum solo appears on "Let It Rain" (19:40), whose main parts are otherwise stellar (actually, the drum solo is fairly entertaining as far as those things go as well), while a slowed down "Crossroads" closes the proceedings in fine fashion even if the classic Cream version absolutely crushes it. Anyway, just looking at these songs' running times you can tell that this is an album comprised of long jams for guitar lovers, and if that describes you then I suppose that this is a classic of its type. There's arguably more God-like Clapton guitar on these two discs than on any single Eric Clapton release, and though it has its share of significant flaws, both with its loosey goosey arrangements and in the vocal department, this nevertheless provides an extremely enjoyable complement to the absolutely essential Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs.
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