Eric Clapton (Polydor ’70) Rating: B+
After the excesses of Cream and Blind Faith, Eric Clapton was looking for a more modest outlet for his talents, and he found it supporting Delaney and Bonnie on tour (a record ensued titled On Tour With Eric Clapton). He then moved onto this, his first solo album, on which Delaney and Bonnie and friends (which included Stephen Stills, Steve Cropper, and Leon Russell) were still very much in evidence, especially Delaney, who produced the album and co-wrote most of the songs with Clapton. As such, Eric Clapton had a loose, funky feel that was far removed from his previous work, in part because Clapton traded in his muscular Gibson (which gave him arguably the greatest guitar tone ever in Cream) for the leaner sounds of a Stratocaster. And though many fans disapproved of this new direction (and still do) and yearned for a little less Delaney Bramlett and a little more “Eric Is God” Clapton, this was a fine first effort that remains one of his best. “Slunky,” a jazzy sax-led (Bobby Keys) jam with some serious guitar heat as well, was immediately worlds away from anything Clapton had done to date, though more standard blues fare returns in the form of “Bad Boy,” a good effort led by some lean guitar runs from Clapton, as well as the odd horn punctuation here and there. The horns are out in full force on “Lonesome And A Long Way From Home,” a lively Leon Russell written (with Delaney) piece with prominent female backing vocals, while an enjoyably up-tempo cover of J. J. Cale’s “After Midnight” became one of Clapton’s signature solo songs and a perennial concert favorite. The comparatively overlooked “Easy Now,” a simple yet effective ballad featuring Eric’s ever-improving singing alongside a lone acoustic guitar, is one of this underrated album’s most underrated efforts, but the hard rocking “Blues Power” was easy to remember and became another fan favorite whose “I’m living on blues power” motto became a manifesto of sorts for Clapton. Continuing, “Bottle of Red Wine” shuffles pleasantly along and has some choice soloing, while the lightly melodic “Lovin’ You, Lovin’ Me” sounds like something his friend George Harrison might’ve done. Still, whatever grit that last song lacked is made up for by the presence of Steve Cropper on “Told You For The Last Time,” which unsurprisingly has a soulful, Stax-y feel, again with effective female backing help, which is also prominent on “Don’t Know Why,” where Eric heads to the church for a gospel-flavored, horn-driven pop song that’s thoroughly enjoyable. Still, for all the album’s consistent quality, “Let It Rain” is the only truly great song here. The song has a memorable opening riff and a wonderful overall melody and atmosphere, but I especially love those “raaaaiiinnnn” backing vocals towards the end and Eric’s lean, economical guitar solo (easily the album’s best, though I still sense that Eric is holding back a little bit) provides the icing on the cake to a legitimate Clapton classic that became a popular radio track. Alas, the album was considered a disappointment upon its release, “Clapton Is Very Good” not being quite enough for those who previously thought that “Clapton Is God,” but many years (and far too many mediocre albums) later it’s easy to appreciate this album’s loose ‘n’ lively feel and low-key charms. Better yet, after this album Clapton took three of Delaney and Bonnie’s “friends” (Jim Gordon, drums; Carl Radle, bass; and Bobby Whitlock, keyboards and vocals) and, together with the great Duane Allman, became Derek and the Dominos for one truly inspired album.
461 Ocean Boulevard (Polydor ’74) Rating: A-
After Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs capped off a restlessly brilliant first seven years of his career (to quote Steven Van Zandt in Rolling Stone: "he had seven years of the most extraordinary, historic guitar playing ever -- and thirty-five years of doing good work"), Clapton sank into despair and drugs. He was coaxed out of retirement by Pete Townshend and some other friends for the poorly recorded Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert before resuming his solo career in earnest with this comeback album, which was produced by the legendary Tom Dowd. 461 Ocean Boulevard mapped out the course his solo career would subsequently take (but rarely with such inspired results), as Clapton’s voice takes center stage along with his guitar as Clapton sought to shed his Guitar God status while proving his chops as a singer and songwriter. Fortunately, Clapton’s singing is confident and relaxed, anchoring a low-key but consistently very good and surprisingly varied album. It starts off with a galloping romp through the traditional “Motherless Children,” which Clapton turns into a stellar slide guitar showcase (drummer Jamie Oldaker really shines on this track as well). The only other big time rocker is the final track, “Mainline Florida” (written by second guitarist George Terry), a great driving song that really trucks along. However, the heart of the album is really in its beautiful ballads: “Give Me Strength,” on which Clapton acknowledges his drug induced demons and hopes that He leads him to better days ahead, the pretty, pleading “Please Be With Me” (a Charles Scott Boyer cover), and the laid-back yet dramatic sing along anthem “Let It Grow,” in my opinion one of his best solo songs ever. Clapton also shows that he can still play the blues on a solid version of Elmore James’ “I Can’t Hold Out” (highlighted by a slide guitar solo) and a funky reading of Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man,” which has some more hot guitar. Also enjoyable is the catchy reggae-ish groove of Johnny Otis' "Willie and the Hand Jive" and his repetitive yet slinkily seductive low-key funk duet with Yvonne Elliman (a key contributor to several songs), "Get Ready," but this album is primarily remembered because of his rock reggae cover of Bob Marley & The Wailers' "I Shot the Sheriff." His first and (thus far) only #1 hit, Clapton does Bob Marley justice, poppifying his funky beats for mass consumption but bringing reggae to a worldwide audience. Though hardly God-like anymore, on this more modest pop collection Clapton delivers heartfelt songs that are performed with passion and soul. Few subsequent Clapton albums would ever rise to such consistent heights again, and 461 Ocean Boulevard served as both a career rebirth and as one of the artistic peaks of his solo career.
There’s One In Every Crowd (Polydor ’75) Rating: B+
Though not nearly as successful as 461 Ocean Boulevard since it failed to produce any hit singles or signature songs, There’s One In Every Crowd was another fine album that's somewhat overlooked and underrated. It’s not as good as 461 Ocean Boulevard, but this laid back album is well worth the time of any Eric Clapton fan, because even though it lacks the gritty excitement and energy that many rock fans expect, it does have some tasty licks (the album contains some fine solos but they’re generally concise and low-key) and consistently pleasant melodies. True, perhaps Eric is still overly enamored with Bob Marley, as evidence by reggaefied tracks like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Don't Blame Me” (sorry, Eric, but I prefer the real thing), and “Little Rachel” is fairly perfunctory. However, the rest of the album is highly enjoyable, boosted by gospel-ish backing vocals (led by Yvonne Elliman and Marcy Levy) and a nice mix of originals and covers. On the covers side, Willie Johnson’s “We've Been Told (Jesus Is Coming Soon)” begins the album with a mellow gospel tinged country blues that lacks excitement but exudes class, with some fine dobro picking from Clapton, while his take on Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” is extremely well done, with moody keyboards and more searing guitar solos, and “Singin' The Blues” (written by Leon Russell’s wife, Mary McCreary) has a more up-tempo, funky feel along with an increased energy. From the pen of Clapton comes some fine songs as well, most of which are featured on side two. The album’s best track, “Better Make It Through Today,” is a slow, moving ballad with lyrics that again allude to his past problems, “Pretty Blue Eyes” is a pleasantly melodic love song highlighted by soaring harmony vocals, "High" has a Beatlesque vibe and some more impressive guitar soloing, and “Opposites” is an atmospheric, low-key ballad with an excellent extended ending. Anyway, it’s a shame that none of these well-crafted songs aren’t better known than they are, and that this album doesn’t have a better reputation than it does. Really, it’s one of his better solo albums and is easily enjoyable provided that you can ditch the “Eric Is God” expectations.
E.C. Was Here (Polydor ’75) Rating: B+
Although not quite at the same level as Derek and the Dominos Live At The Fillmore album, I think that these raw and passionate performances exceed those captured on his still good but overly slick and inconsistent Just One Night (1980) and 24 Nights (1991) live albums, if not Unplugged which is a different thing altogether anyway. I wish that it contained more than a measly six songs (a double album would've been welcome), but at least these six songs average almost 8 minutes in length, and Eric lets loose with quite a few solos along the way. Really, that was the whole point of this album, as Eric’s record company wanted to prove to the public that Clapton could still play the guitar hero role after the more song oriented nature of his last two solo albums. Unfortunately, George Terry takes a few more lead turns than he probably should have, but by and large he proves an adept foil for Clapton, with whom he trades sizzling leads on “Have You Ever Loved A Woman.” The idea whereupon Clapton’s guitar finishes some sung verses was a neat one, making the song an obvious album highlight, and Clapton also delivers a high-energy solo in the middle section of “Presence Of The Lord.” Alas, despite the best efforts of Eric and Yvonne Elliman, both this and “Can’t Find My Way Home” fall far short of the moody studio versions on Blind Faith, Steve Winwood’s soulful vocals being sorely missed. “Drifting Blues,” finally restored to its full 11-minute version on cd after a 3-minute edit on the LP, is a slow, laid back blues shuffle that strangely integrates a few verses from “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” even stranger because a full-blown and quite excellent version of that song appears later on. Really, those of you who insist that Clapton is “boring” would do well to check out his impeccable playing on “Ramblin’ On My Mind”; it just might make you want to dig deeper than making sweeping (and in my opinion not entirely fair) generalizations such as that. Anyway, back off my high horse and back to this album, which ends with the up-tempo shuffle of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Further On Up The Road.” Along with “Drifting Blues” this song had yet to appear on any Eric Clapton release and is all the more valuable for it, though the fiery interplay between Clapton and Terry provides value enough on its own. So, when all is said and done what we have here are three first-rate live performances (“Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Further On Up The Road”) that show what a great guitar player Clapton still was, and three largely enjoyable but seriously flawed efforts (“Presence Of The Lord,” “Drifting Blues,” “Can’t Find My Way Home”). Given this, a B+ rating sounds about right, and the less said about the bizarre album cover the better.
No Reason To Cry (Polydor ’76) Rating: B
Eric Clapton was always enamored with The Band, whose Music From Big Pink album played a large role in the dissolution of Cream and inspired the direction of his subsequent solo career. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Eric jumped at the opportunity to record with The Band on No Reason To Cry. Problem is, much like on his debut (but even more so) Clapton is too content to play second fiddle, as his collaborators (also including Bob Dylan, Ron Wood, Georgie Fame, and Marcy Levy) often relegate Eric to bystander status. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Band, but I don’t necessarily love Eric Clapton fronting The Band, and sometimes it seems like everybody (Wood, Robbie Robertson, George Levy) but Clapton plays lead guitar on the album (he also only wrote or co-wrote 4 of this album’s 10 proper songs). The only time Eric really cuts loose is on a moody cover of Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble,” as too much of the album comes and goes pleasantly enough but without leaving a lasting impression. The beautifully bright and melodic “Beautiful Thing” and the more subdued and countrified “All Our Past Times” are the most Band-like songs (unsurprising given the songwriting credits and in fact Rick Danko even takes some lead vocals on the latter song), while Marcy Levy dominates “Innocent Times” (a big ballad) and “Hungry” (which at least Eric co-sings and which has a pretty good guitar-led groove and a lively chorus), neither of which are bad but neither of which are Eric Clapton songs. Elsewhere, “Country Jail Blues” delivers blues-by-numbers but at least it has some solid slide guitar, while the Latin-tinged rocker “Carnival” starts with a silly “oi” chant and has irritatingly prominent female backing vocals but at least it too has a good guitar-led groove going for it. The melodic country pop of “Hello Old Friend” and the pretty, soulful ballad “Black Summer Rain” fare much better and are easily likeable standouts, while “Sign Language,” an atmospheric duet with Dylan (who also wrote the song), provides a succinct album highlight that's arguably the album’s best song along with “Double Trouble” (though the live verison of "Double Trouble" on the Just One Night live album is even better). Far more forgettable is the cd only bonus track “Last Night,” a sloppy, uninspired blues that ends a modestly enjoyable but rather unmemorable album on which Eric too often failed to assert himself.
Slowhand (Polydor ‘77) Rating: B+
Let's face it, most of Eric Clapton’s solo efforts are highly professional affairs that lack the urgency and excitement of his earlier days. That said, Slowhand is one of his most confident efforts, though he still refuses to completely extend his talents, despite the urgings of legendary uber producer Glyn Johns. Fortunately, the album does feature some impressive guitar playing, most notably on a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” (still better in concert, though, where the song has long been a fan favorite) and “The Core,” a hot extended (8:40) number that also features stirring vocals from Marcy Levy and some serious belting out on saxophone from Mel Collins. The J.J. Cale-ish “Lay Down Sally” has dexterous guitar, a good shuffle groove, and a catchy chorus on which Elliman and Levy are again prominent, while Clapton registers a nice falsetto vocal performance on the sappy but pretty romantic ballad “Wonderful Tonight,” which became one of his signature songs, particularly among the female set. The song was ironically conceived from Clapton’s knee jerk responses to his wife Pattie’s repeated questions about her appearance while Eric waited for her to get ready to go out one night. “Peaches And Diesel,” a gorgeously laid back instrumental that closes the album, is another highlight, but the rest of the album is primarily comprised of consistently pleasant but lightweight numbers that fail to scale the heights of the aforementioned songs. Among the mellower leftovers,“Next Time You See Her” is a catchy pop ditty that gets dark too,“We’re All The Way” (a Don Williams cover) is a low-key late night country ballad that’s a bit too laid back for its own good, and “May You Never” (a John Martyn cover) is perfectly pleasant and singable even if it’s pretty unexciting when contrasted with “The Core” (which it follows). Meanwhile, “Mean Old Frisco” is grittier but it’s also the type of solid but risk free blues cover (Arthur Crudup) that Clapton could probably perform in his sleep, though I still like the song’s slide guitar playing and barroom piano. Still, this album is more about its highlights, overplayed though the first three of them are, as “Cocaine,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Lay Down Sally,” “The Core,” and “Peaches and Diesel” (that’s more than half the album) are all among his strongest solo songs.
Backless (Polydor ’78) Rating: B
A continuation of the same style as Slowhand, Backless suffers significantly from "inferior sequel syndrome," as Clapton's albums were growing increasingly formulaic. Basically, I never get the impression that Clapton needed to make this album, but rather that he made it because his record company wanted some "fresh product." Don't get me wrong, Eric tries his best and said product is professional sounding and rarely unpleasant, but the album seems to be the result of perspiration rather than inspiration. Then again, Eric probably didn't sweat too much when recording some of these laid back songs ("Golden Ring," for example, though its accordion is a nice touch), most of which are still pleasant (there's that word again) enough in Eric's all too modest manner. Buddy Bob Dylan lends Eric two songs this time out ("Walk Out In The Rain" and "If I Don't Be There By Morning"), but neither Dylan number is especially strong (Eric's weak vocal on the latter doesn't help, either), unlike the J.J. Cale song (yet another) "I'll Make Love To You Anytime," an impressively low-key wah wah fest that provides this album's highlight along with the supremely melodic "Tell Me That You Love Me" and “Promises,” a pretty folksy pop number with easily relatable lyrics and easily singable “la la la” vocals. Elsewhere, "Watch Out For Lucy" and "Roll It" (another Marcy Levy showcase) are unimpressive from a compositional standpoint but groove along with a lively energy, while the catchy country-flavored boogie-based finale ”Tulsa Time” (written by Don Williams guitarist Danny Flowers) became a regularly featured concert favorite. Alas, "Early In The Morning," despite some choice slide guitar from Clapton, suffers from his band's plodding performance, and as such this slow burning blues epic (7:55) fails to live up to its potential. Truthfully, Marcy Levy is the only member of Eric's increasingly lethargic backing band who really stands out this time, and Eric would soon thereafter cut the chord with the American band (also including Carl Radle, the lone ex-Domino holdover, keyboardist Dick Sims, guitarist George Terry, and drummer Jamie Oldaker) who by and large had served him well over the past several years. It was a necessary move on his part, because even though it has its moments and is a solid enough (if rarely truly inspired) effort, it's hard not to think of Backless as a weaker version of Slowhand.
Just One Night (RSO ’80) Rating: B+
This double live album documents Eric’s tour with his new British backing band comprised of second guitarist Albert Lee, keyoardist Chris Stainton, bassist Dave Markee, and drummer Henry Spinetti. Thoroughly competent and professional, this band nevertheless lacks the fire and improvisational skills that would’ve brought out the best in Clapton, though the album does have quite a few notable performances even if its inconsistency, both in the performances and in the song selection, make it an album I generally select specific tracks from rather than one that I play all the way through. Lively highlights include the well-placed album opener “Tulsa Time” (which actually hit #30 on the Billboard U.S. chart), a fast-paced, frenetic “After Midnight,” a hard rocking, expansive “Blues Power,” and “Cocaine,” another extended cut whose version here became a popular radio track for good reason (these last three songs all feature excellent extended wah wah guitar solos from Eric). Unfortunately, there are several questionable song selections, Eric gives too many solo spotlights to his bandmates, and other tracks are listenable but clearly don’t add anything to the studio originals. In addition to the aforementioned highlights, the main reason I like to listen to this album is for slow, moody blues numbers like “Early In The Morning” (traditional), Muddy Waters’ “Worried Life Blues,” and especially Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble,” THE standout song on the album, in my opinion. Eric’s emotional playing on these tracks is impeccable, and I also like these versions of “Ramblin’ On My Mind” (a 2-for-1 with “Have You Ever Loved A Woman”) and “Further On Up The Road,” if not as much as the versions previously on E.C. Was Here. On the whole, this is an enjoyable live album provided that you cherry pick the best cuts, but it’s also one that could’ve been a lot better, which is the case for most of Clapton’s live albums and his solo career in general.
Another Ticket (Polydor ’81) Rating: B+
This is actually one of Eric's best and most underrated solo albums, despite the numerous problems he had before and after making it. Apparently Polydor rejected a version of the album produced by Glyn Johns, so Eric re-recorded it with Tom Dowd, who had produced several of Eric's best prior albums. Next, Eric had a major health scare with ulcer problems brought about by his alcoholism, which prompted the cancellation of the tour in promotion of the album, which Polydor probably wasn't going to promote too heavily anyway given that it was his last album for them. As a result, despite containing a Top Ten U.S. single in "I Can't Stand It," Another Ticket kinda got overlooked at the time, and it continues to get lost within the shuffle of Eric's prolific career output, despite the fact that it's easily one of his most consistent studio releases in terms of delivering consistently high quality songs and performances. For one thing, there's more guitar on this album than other recent efforts; it's still laid-back but is more rock and less country, and former Procol Harum member Gary Brooker is a welcome addition to the band on keyboards and vocals. The fact that Clapton wrote or co-wrote six of this album's nine songs, his most in some time, shows that he was inspired, and I like every song here even if few can be considered all-time Clapton classics. "Something Special" begins the album with a light Randy Newman-ish number, before "Black Rose" continues with a passionate ballad on which Brooker's keyboards add warmth and color, plus this one is almost a duet with Brooker being so prominent on backing vocals. "Blow Wind Blows" is one of two excellent blues covers on the album, this one a gritty interpretation of a Muddy Waters song, whereas later he tackles Sleepy John Estes' "Floating Bridge," the album's longest song (6:34) which is more laid-back but less conventional and still quite good (I can't put my finger on exactly why beyond that it has some neat guitar and a nice vibe to it). The synth-heavy title track is too adult-contemporary and Eric's vocals are barely audible at times, but it's still a nice ballad, while the aforementioned "I Can't Stand It" is a catchy mid-tempo rocker that doesn't really rock enough but which is still intense and stirring just the same. After ranting about his no good woman, the solid gospel pop of "Hold Me Lord" is certainly a contrast, and one of this album's strengths is in its variety of material. Finishing with a flourish, "Catch Me If You Can" delivers catchy, funky, bluesy pop rock with some really cool guitar by both Eric and Albert Lee, and "Rita Mae" is a fast paced groover that really cooks, with more good soloing and impressive band interplay on what was clearly a jam-inspired composition. Again, this album isn't a stone cold classic or anything, but it is consistently enjoyable and any fan of Eric Clapton would do well to seek it out.
Money and Cigarettes (Warner Bros. ’83) Rating: B-
After Another Ticket Clapton took some time off to kick his alcohol addiction, switched record labels, and then immediately pursued a more commercially oriented, more straight ahead rock direction on Money and Cigarettes. This album was again produced by Tom Dowd but the results are disappointing this time out, especially so when you consider that his crack studio band now consisted of a couple of ace guitarists (Albert Lee and Ry Cooder), legendary bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn (of Booker T. & The M.G.’s fame), and an extremely experienced, also legendary drummer in Roger Hawkins (ex-Traffic, countless soul sessions). Alas, the album doesn't deliver the guitar heat that one may have hoped for, being a very song oriented collection, only the songs are generally average, with a few ("I've Got a Rock 'n' Roll Heart," "Man Overboard," "Slow Down Linda," "Crazy Country Hop") ranking as outright filler. "I've Got a Rock 'n' Roll Heart" sounds like a slight commercial jingle somebody (it's a cover) made up on the spot, while annoyingly silly choruses mar the other three songs. Elsewhere, the Sleepy John Estes cover ("Everybody Oughta Make A Change") is solidly enjoyable but nothing special, and "Ain't Going Down" is such a blatant ripoff of "All Along The Watchtower" that it's hard to ignore, though this is fortunately made up for by the excellent energy exhibited by the band on what is a comparatively hard rocking guitar showcase. The other side of the spectrum, "Pretty Girl," is a decent ballad about Pattie, while "Man In Love" is a decent blues shuffle, as the word "decent" seems to sum up this album in general. At least "The Shape You're In" and his cover of "Crosscut Saw" (originally popularized by Albert King) feature the good grooves and intense guitar interplay that is too often lacking elsewhere, making me think that had Eric and company let loose more often this album could've actually been quite good (or at least much better than it is). Alas, for whatever reason (pressure from his new record company for a more commercial product, perhaps?) Eric plays things much too safe, and the inconsistent songwriting further hinders the process, resulting in a patchy, underwhelming album that lacks any truly classic songs and is therefore for hardcore Eric Clapton fans only.
Behind The Sun (Warner Bros. ’85) Rating: B
1985's Behind The Sun and 1986's August were two of Clapton's most commercially successful releases (boosted in part by his high profile Live Aid appearance). However, they're also two of the least-liked albums among critics and Clapton aficionados, largely due to the influence of Genesis singer-drummer and solo artist Phil Collins, whose slickly commercial (and very '80s) production, heavy on the synthesizers and drum machines, makes both albums sound extremely dated. Still, both albums contain some good songs even if they’re poorly recorded. Famously, the original version of this album was rejected by Warner Bros., who felt that the album lacked hit singles. Unable to come up with suitable additional material, Clapton suggested to his record company that they supply him with some new songs, and Texas songwriter Jerry Lynn Willams was up for the task, supplying three songs including “Forever Man,” the album’s most often played radio track along with Clapton’s own (with Peter Robinson) “She’s Waiting.” The latter may contain Collins’ omnipresent drum sound, but it's still a catchy soul pop number on which Marcy Levy makes a welcome return. Other highlights are a pair of epic guitar tracks, “Same Old Blues” and “Just Like A Prisoner,” the latter one of several songs here that alludes to his troubled marriage to Pattie (they separated in 1984 and would finally divorce for good in 1988). Fans had been waiting for Eric to let loose on guitar like this for years, and Eric’s playing on both songs is outstanding, enabling them to overcome Collins’ synthetic, ill-fitting production techniques, which may have been state-of-the-art contemporary at the time but which sounds hopelessly trapped in time today. The other standout track is the aforementioned “Forever Man,” an excellent rocker with a great gruff vocal and some stinging guitar playing from Clapton, plus a catchy chorus with more prominent female backing vocals. Williams’ reggae-tinged “Something’s Happening” is another good one, with a soaring, tuneful singalong melody and more good guitar, and elsewhere there are several pleasantly pretty if blandly unadventurous ballads in “It All Depends,” “Never Make You Cry,” and the (too) short but sweet title track, which features Clapton’s pretty shimmering guitar and whispered, barely audible vocals. Skippable filler comes in the form of “See What Love Can Do,” another Williams song but this one has horrible lyrics that even Hallmark would reject for being too cheesy (as Meat Loaf said, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad), “Tangled In Love,” which has the album’s silliest chorus, and a truly dreadful cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood.” Eric admits that he went out of his way to please his record company at the time, and the compromised Phil Collins dominated end result detracts from even the best songs here. Still, as previously mentioned, Clapton plays more lead guitar here than on any of his recent albums, and there are some very good songs, too, horribly recorded though they may have been.
August (Warner Bros. ’86) Rating: C+
Named for the month during which his son Conor was born, August continues along the same Phil Collins produced path as its predecessor, with decidedly less inspired results. Still, even Clapton’s worst ‘80s album contain some good songs, starting with the horn-heavy hit "It's In The Way That You Use It" (co-written with Robbie Robertson), which features some fine guitar work from Clapton and whose popularity largely stemmed from its association with the movie The Color Of Money. Written by Lamont Dozier (formerly of the famed Motown production team Holland-Dozier-Holland), the tinkly synths, prominent horns, and sax solo of "Run" (another radio track) seem more fitting for Phil Collins than Eric Clapton, who nevertheless puts in a good gruff vocal, which he reprises for "Tearing Us Apart," a pretty good hit duet with Tina Turner on which Eric lets loose on guitar a bit. Despite its slick veneer, "Bad Influence" is a classy Robert Cray (who along with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Clapton would make blues music a viable commercial force again in the mid-to-late '80s) cover highlighted by solos from Eric and Michael Brecker on sax, but the synths on "Walk Away" seem trapped in time, and the song itself, a desperate ballad, is quite forgettable. "Hung Up On Your Love," which approaches disco at times and was again written by Dozier, fares even worse, as Eric again fails to assert himself (so what else is new?), holding back while letting Collins' ideas dominate (not a good thing, I think most Clapton fans would agree). Fortunately, the album then briefly upswings on the pleasantly catchy "Take A Chance," though like every song here this one is far too polished for its own good, and the album then downswings sharply on the overly obvious, sickly sentimental "Hold On," which again is way more readily identifiable as a Phil Collins song than an Eric Clapton song. Much better is "Miss You," another popular radio track with an r&b-feel and some signs of life from Eric's guitar, which is too often M.I.A. on several other songs that surely would've benefited from an appearance, such as "Holy Mother," a boring "easy listening" ballad that maybe your mother would like. OK, that was harsh, because maybe your mother has good taste, the song's lyrics in tribute to the late great Band member Richard Manuel are rather moving, and Eric does chime in with a lyrical solo there at the end. However, people who think that Eric Clapton is boring are likely thinking of albums such as August (it was one of his most popular ones, after all). At least "Behind The Mask" is decidedly different if not necessarily good (again the overly cluttered production hinders rather than helps, though Eric puts in a good vocal), while "Grand Illusion" (a cd only track) is another (more atmospheric) departure, albeit a more palatable one. Still, by and large the singles are the best songs here, and even those are no great shakes, as this mostly forgettable more funk and soul-based pop album offers little in the way of memorable album tracks but lots of bland mediocrity from Eric "Phil Collins" Clapton.
Crossroads (Polydor ‘88) Rating: A
This exemplary box set really renewed interest in Eric Clapton and put his remarkable career in perspective. Encompassing every phase of his career and filled with unreleased tracks (including 5 songs from the aborted second Derek and The Dominos album), live performances (many of which are quite good), and hard-to-find singles, this is an excellent showcase for an extraordinary guitarist who has had a sometimes spectacular, albeit inconsistent career. Still, the overall impact and strength of his various career outlets cannot be denied, as the 4 cds of Crossroads expertly documents. Crossroads begins with his work with the legendary Yardbirds (including 3 decent but hardly revelatory demos: “Boom Boom,” “Honey In Your Hips,” “Baby What’s Wrong”) and is followed by his groundbreaking blues exploits in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (including the flip-sided single, “Lonely Years”/”Bernard Jenkins,” and a live track also not on Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman”) during which time “Clapton is God” began being spray painted on the walls of London. Next up is his incendiary work with the band many consider to have produced Clapton’s greatest contributions to rock music, Cream (including a short but vastly improved “Lawdy Mama” and a really good BBC recording of “Steppin’ Out”), followed by the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith (the unreleased track this time being the simple, spare blues of “Sleeping In The Ground”). Crossroads then briefly chronicles his outings with Delaney and Bonnie (“Comin’ Home”), whose backup band he took along with Duane Allman. Eric and Duane soon became Derek, the band was re-christened Derek and the Dominos, and Clapton’s masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, was created. Among the studio songs not previously released, their recalled fast paced first single produced by Phil Spector (“Tell The Truth”) sounds like an All Things Must Pass outtake, unsurprising given that it was recorded at the same time using the same musicians and producer. The b-side, “Roll It Over,” is considerably slower paced and bluesy, and though neither are especially inspired, both are worth hearing (the version of “Tell The Truth” on Layla is better but at least this version is considerably different). As for the never finished second Derek and the Dominos studio album, “Got To Get Better In A Little While” and “Evil” (a funky, heavy Willie Dixon cover) both boast some great wah wah guitar from Clapton and terrific performances from the Dominos, particularly drummer Jim Gordon (even if the long live version of the former at the Fillmore is superior). I’m not as crazy about their acoustic attempt at “Mean Old Frisco,” but “One More Chance” is a mellow, catchy little number with some superb slide guitar, while “Snake Lake Blues” is another “lost gem” with more lyrical lead guitar work from Clapton. Crossroads then spends most of its final two cds on a lengthy overview of Clapton’s solo career, during which time he largely abandoned his experimental earlier exploits for a more commercial, song oriented approach. This course has infuriated old fans who view him as wasting his talent, but this approach has also gained him many new fans, making him a worldwide superstar in the process. The main complaint with Clapton is that he became too safe as a result of his “been there, done that” approach to really letting loose on his guitar. However, Crossroads makes a convincing case (as do the rest of these reviews, hopefully) that his inconsistent solo career has also had its fair share of highlights. Of course, like most box sets Crossroads contains some redundant and unmemorable material, and a few of these songs should’ve remained in the vaults. Certainly the slightly remixed “After Midnight” adds little to the original, and his slowed down 1987 remake of the song (see what I mean about redundant material?) would really prove regrettable when it was featured in a beer commercial (remember, Eric is a recovering alcoholic). Still, his slinky, mellow blues reading of Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” (a 461 Ocean Boulevard outtake) is highly enjoyable, and I also like his cover of Peter Tosh’s “Whatcha Gonna Do” (unsurprisingly recorded during his reggae phase of There’s One In Every Crowd). The b-side to his uneventful cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Someone Like You,” both a soulful duet with Marcy Levy and a slide guitar showcase, is every bit as pretty as the unreleased live version of “Further On Up The Road” is smokin’, though Phil Collins’ dreaded ‘80s production devours the bouncy "Heaven Is One Step Away,” and the sparse acoustic blues “Too Bad” (both Behind The Sun outtakes that were replaced by Jerry Lynn Williams tracks) is also nothing special. Still, another outtake, “Wanna Make Love To You,” probably would’ve been the best song on August (for whatever that’s worth), and it’s hidden gems such as this seductive number that makes this box set so worthwhile, both for hardcore Clapton fanatics and for casual fans. Sure, some of the selections here are questionable, and some equally head scratching omissions (“SWLABR,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” “The Core,” and "Forever Man," for starters) prevents Crossroads from being the definitive career overview that it could've been. Still, these four cds are surprisingly listenable and enjoyable throughout, and the high points, especially on the first two discs that chronicle his best years, reach some dizzying peaks.
Journeyman (Reprise ‘89) Rating: A- Crossroads was a model box set that renewed interest in Eric Clapton’s career, and he responded with his most guitar-driven, and not coincidentally, best effort in many years. Some people (i.e. Robert Christgau) snickered at the album’s title, full well knowing that there was a hint of truth in it and feeling that Clapton should have accomplished more over the past fifteen years. However, this highly accomplished effort (produced by Russ Titelman) likely made many of his old fans feel better. It was a substantial hit, too, featuring fine singing from Clapton and even better guitar playing on a soulful batch of songs, five of which were written by the album’s unsung hero Jerry Lynn Williams. Popular radio tracks included “Pretending” and “No Alibis,” both of which rocked just hard enough while containing catchy choruses (the anthemic latter effort featuring Daryl Hall on harmony vocals), and “Bad Love,” another catchy faster paced number which saw Clapton really letting loose on guitar (oddly enough, the song was co-written with Foreigner’s Mick Jones!). Elsewhere, not even the dated synths on "Anything For Your Love” can mar such a well-written and performed song, and some more hot guitar helps, while the musty Ray Charles blues “Hard Times,” a sparse nightclub number, was tailor made for Clapton’s talents (appearances by some of Charles’ master sax-men certainly helped). Robert Cray co-writes and helps jam on “Old Love,” a bluesy ballad about Clapton’s old love Pattie Boyd (ex-Pattie Harrison and Clapton), while the incredibly forgiving George Harrison lends the melodic “Run So Far,” on which he also sings harmonies and plays some gorgeous slide guitar while Eric tastefully chimes in as well. Clapton's version of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” this album’s obligatory blues cover on which Cray again guests, also became an instant fan favorite, and his delicate duet with Linda Womack, “Lead Me On” (written in tandem with husband Cecil), is over-long but easy on the ears, while the gorgeously spiritual “Running On Faith,” a heartfelt gospel-blues, was one of Clapton’s best ballads ever. This album is still a little too slickly professional and ‘80s sounding for its own good, as “Breaking Point” in particular brings back bad memories of August, and his misguided reading of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" is a real mutt of an effort whose inclusion was completely unnecessary. Still, these minor flaws aside, Journeyman was a very good album that, with significant help from Jerry Lynn Williams and many guest musicians, signaled a reawakening of Clapton's muse after several sub par efforts.
24 Nights (Reprise ’91) Rating: B
Fulfilling a contract obligation, Clapton released his first official live album in over a decade, and like Just One Night this double disc set is one I tend to cherry pick highlights from rather than listen to from start to finish. The album is so named because Clapton performed for 24 nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England in 1991, but it’s not really accurately named because this live album is actually comprised of performances from 1990 concerts as well. Apparently Clapton recorded several shows with a regular 4 piece band, several with a 9 piece band, several straight up blues shows, and several with an orchestra, and it might have been a better strategy to release several more compartmentalized individual live albums rather than this hodgepodge set comprised of various styles. In addition to the album’s lack of cohesiveness, too often this overly slick and unadventurous live album lacks energy and excitement, and the Cream and Derek and the Dominos songs in particular pale when compared to their best prior renditions. The album is also overly reliant on the recently released Journeyman, especially since most of these songs fail to improve upon the originals; they’re a bit more expansive and reliant upon guitar solos but they’re not necessarily better in most cases. The backing band(s) are also rather nondescript on the whole, but now that I’ve complained about some of this album’s shortcomings, I’ll also note that by and large Eric is in fine form and the album contains some notable performances. For example, “Running On Faith,” with Eric on electric guitar rather than dobro, is an exceptional version of an exceptional song, and this version of “Old Love,” at 13-minutes the albums centerpiece song, is also largely outstanding if perhaps over-long; the solo at around the 5-minute mark is truly breathtaking. The blues section on disc one, including a Buddy Guy cover (“Watch Yourself”) with both Buddy and Robert Cray guesting on guitar, and a Junior Wells song (“Hoodoo Man”) with guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and harp player Jerry Portnoy both shining, plus strong versions of old chestnuts “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and “Worried Life Blues,” is where Clapton unsurprisingly excels most consistently, even if maybe some of the material is overly familiar (personally I would’ve preferred Phil Collins-less versions of “Same Old Blues” and “Just Like A Prisoner” instead). By contrast, the songs with the orchestra on disc two are a bit of a letdown, as “Edge Of Darkness,” a suitably atmospheric soundtrack song written with Michael Kamen, is the only song where I feel that the orchestra enhances rather than detracts from the song. The version of “Wonderful Tonight,” here a duet with Katie Kissoon (whose wordless coos nearly steal the show), is tortoise-like slow and also over-long but it’s also even more delicate and beautiful than the original. Anyway, as you can tell, this live album has its considerable plusses and minuses, but Eric and company are never less than completely professional sounding, and for all its faults the album does have its fair share of standout performances.
Unplugged (Reprise ’92) Rating: A-
One of the music phenomenons of the early 1990s was MTV’s Unplugged series (remember when MTV played music?), and Eric Clapton Unplugged was one of its signature concerts along with NirvanaUnplugged In New York. Playing a loose and confident set alongside trusted bandmates such as guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, bassist Nathan East, and pianist Chuck Leavell (who predictably shines), a seated and relaxed Clapton never once loses his way. He may not be God, but then again he never was, and Clapton is still one helluva guitar player, not to mention an underrated singer. The three new songs are good, too, including "Signe," a nifty little guitar intro, the massive radio hit "Tears In Heaven," a heartbreaking ode to his deceased son Conor (there wasn't a dry eye in the house for this one) who died tragically when he fell from a fourth floor window, and "Lonely Stranger," a lovely, soulful ballad. Elsewhere, the mood is at times refreshingly upbeat and fun (for example, “Alberta” and “San Francisco Boy Blues,” the latter a rowdy crowd pleaser with help from some kazoos), and I’ve even grown to tolerate the waltz-like rendition of “Layla” that also became a big hit (it helps if I pretend that the original doesn’t exist!). Granted, maybe a couple of these (primarily cover) songs either fall flat or fail to add anything to the original, and the album runs a little long at over 60 sometimes-lagging minutes. However, imaginative reworkings ("Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out"), dazzling improvements (“Old Love,” which has the album's most stunning solo), and several more mildly successful odes to old timers (Big Bill Broozy's "Hey Hey" and a solo acoustic update of Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues") make this a concert recording that sounds genuinely new and fresh, even now. Perhaps the audio album isn't quite as compelling without the visuals (Clapton was clearly moved at several junctures), but when Clapton and company bring the curtain down with a spontaneous cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” there could be little doubt that this was a triumphant return to his roots. To his own astonishment, Unplugged went on to become Clapton’s best selling album, paving the way for future blues-based endeavors such as From The Cradle and Me and Mr. Johnson and snagging six Grammy Awards in the process. P.S. I wish they would’ve included the unplugged versions of “My Father’s Eyes” and “Circus,” both of which appeared on the MTV broadcast but which were omitted from the official album release; both are major improvements on the subsequent Pilgrim versions. Update: The 2013 re-release, titled Unplugged: Expanded & Remastered, includes the remastered original concert plus a second disc that contains both of those songs. In fact, it includes two versions of “My Father’s Eyes,” as well as alternate versions of “Talkin’ Blues” and “Running On Faith,” and a version of Muddy Waters’ “Worried Life Blues.”
From The Cradle (Reprise ’94) Rating: A-
After the commercial success of Unplugged, Clapton found the confidence to finally deliver the straight up blues album that die-hard fans had waited 30 years for. As Clapton himself told writer Marc Roberty: “I was actually trying as hard as I could to try and replicate the original recordings. But it still came out as me which is the beauty of the whole exercise...It’s almost like I’m just leaving John Mayall now and I’m producing my own blues band. And it's taken me 30 years of meandering the back streets to get there.” The fact that Clapton himself calls this an “exercise” speaks volumes, but the fact that these performances are so accomplished makes it an exercise that's well worth hearing. Clapton’s song selection certainly can’t be faulted, as he gives straight up renderings of many not so obvious choices from admired bluesmen such as Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and Leroy Carr, among others. The man obviously knows his blues. Clapton also picked excellent sidemen (and longtime associates) such as drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Chris Stainton (who shines throughout the album), guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, and harp player Jerry Portnoy (the album's most prominent sideman along with Stainton), thereby ensuring that all of the performances are typically classy and tasteful. Of course, this is a minor problem as well, as some of these performances are too restrained, and the focus is occasionally on Clapton’s gruff singing rather than his great guitar playing, always a dubious strategy where Clapton is concerned. Also, do we really need yet another version of Muddy Waters' “Hoochie Coochie Man?” Fortunately, when Clapton lets loose on stellar renditions of songs such as “Blues Before Sunrise,” “Five Long Years,” “It Hurts Me Too,” “Someday After A While,” and “Groaning The Blues,” his absolute mastery of the electric guitar simply cannot be doubted. Man, his guitar playing on these tracks is simply phenomenal, probably his best guitar playing in years maybe going as far back as when he was with the Dominos. On the less rocking front, "Third Degree" and "Sinner's Prayer" are stellar slow burners that would be a perfect fit for a small nightclub, while "How Long Blues," "Motherless Child," and "Driftin’" wouldn't have sounded out of place on Unplugged. Like that album, this one is often-terrific but gets somewhat monotonous over its 16 songs that cover 60 minutes. Still, though From The Cradle sometimes comes across as an “exercise” rather than a truly inspired recreation, the majority of this album is indeed a terrific tribute to some unjustly forgotten bluesman, many of whom were likely rediscovered as a result.
The Cream Of Clapton (Polydor ’95) Rating: B+
Despite already having two best of compilations, two box sets, and an Unplugged showcase on the market, Clapton (or at least Polydor; no Warner Bros.-era songs appear) again repackaged some of his best known songs and sold it to the public as fresh product. Truth be told, this is superior to Timepieces: Best Of Eric Clapton, but this is still a very dubious collection. This album contains six Cream songs that are better obtained on either the original studio albums or The Very Best Of Cream. It also has two Derek & the Dominos songs, whose lone studio album, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, is an essential rock purchase that you should buy immediately if you don’t already have it. Finally, we get treated to ten of Clapton’s best-known solo songs, sequenced randomly. Though the quality of these songs can’t be denied, considering that the only reason this album was released was to make a millionaire and his record company richer, I have but one question to ask: is this album really necessary? Recommendation: buy Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs and Crossroads instead.
Pilgrim (Reprise ’98) Rating: C+
Clapton’s first album of new material in nine years (he did some soundtrack work in the interim) clocks in at an overly generous 75+ minutes, which isn’t surprising given that almost all of these songs are too long. After three heartening steps forward (Journeyman, Unplugged, and From The Cradle), this was one giant leap back, as Pilgrim is a bland “adult-oriented” pop album. Clapton’s guitar occasionally heats up (“One Chance,” “She’s Gone”), and there are some soulful ballads, such as the Grammy Award winning first single “My Father’s Eyes.” However, the lifeless production saps any energy that this album might’ve otherwise offered, as almost every song here has the same lazy, loping beat that makes most of today’s r&b such a bloodless bore. These factors largely negate the fact that this album features some of Clapton’s best singing on record. Not totally, as Clapton’s crafty songwriting is also worth a mention (he did have nine years to stockpile songs, after all), and the female backup singers that appear throughout the album are a plus as well. However, the intrusive synthesizers and electronica touches are major negatives, both being rather transparent and somewhat desperate attempts to stay abreast of current trends. Plus, producer Simon Climie (who co-produced along with Clapton, lest anyone thinks that Eric went into this ill-advised direction unwillingly) makes Phil Collins seem like Tom Dowd or Glyn Johns, and at 14 similar-sounding songs Pilgrim adds up to much less than the sum of its individual parts. I suppose that Clapton deserves some credit for daring to do something different this late in the game, and given his recent track record perhaps he’s entitled to a mulligan, especially when one considers how other sixties contemporaries such as Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page have coasted on past glories. That said, Pilgrim is an album that’s strictly for diehards and completeists, for even though it works well enough as pleasantly forgettable background music, it becomes awfully boring over the long haul when it has your undivided attention.
Blues (Polydor '99) Rating: B+
For all his forays into various rock and pop styles, Eric Clapton has always considered himself a bluesman first and foremost, and all of his albums have featured at least one straight up blues number. The best of these have been compiled on the first disc of this 2-CD compilation, several of which were previously unreleased or weren't on his original albums. Among the songs making their first appearances here are two versions of Bo Diddley's "Before You Accuse Me (Take A Look At Yourself)" (neither of which are as good as the one on Journeyman), a version of Leadbelly's "Alberta" (which is better on Unplugged), and a rendition of Willie Dixon's "Meet Me (Down At The Bottom)" (this 7-minute instrumental lacks fireworks but has a nice easy going groove going for it). Also included is Little Walter's "Mean Old World" (a sparse acoustic blues from The Layla Sessions), Jimmy Reed's "Ain’t That Lovin’ You" (previously described in my Crossroads review), and Clapton's own "Cryin'" (a nifty little toe tapper) and "To Make Somebody Happy" (this one is rather dreary but it's also extremely pretty and emotionally affecting; both of these last two songs were previously on the Crossroads 2: Live in the Seventies box set). Finally, we get many of the best blues numbers from his proper studio albums, many of which I've singled out as highlights in my prior reviews: "The Sky Is Crying" (from There's One In Every Crowd), "Have You Ever Loved A Woman (from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs), "Early In The Morning" (from Backless), "Give Me Strength" (from 461 Ocean Boulevard), "Country Jail Blues" (from No Reason To Cry), and "Floating Bridge" and "Blow Wind Blow" (both from Another Ticket). Not all of these would've been my picks, but it is something of a public service to have these like-minded songs grouped together, and in many cases these songs sound better surrounded by their peers rather than standing out like sore thumbs like they do in some of their original surroundings. That said, I listen to disc two, which covers live performances of blues songs performed between 1975-1980, far more often. Granted, there is a lot of overlap with Crossroads 2, 7 out of its 10 songs to be exact, but Blues certainly offers a cheaper alternative and is more consistent than that 4-CD set, though big fans of Clapton would probably want to get both, as there is enough high quality stuff (and some not so high quality stuff) that is exclusive to Crossroads 2 as well, such as Eric's scorching 24-minute guitar duel with Carlos Santana on "Eyesight to the Blind/Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad." But I digress, back to Blues, whose second disc immediately commences with an excellent 12+ minute version of "Stormy Monday," a slow, soulful, moody blues number, which is how the majority of the songs on this disc can be described. This disc closes with a scorching previously unreleased live version of "Further On Up The Road" with Freddie King guesting on guitar, and in between we get mostly really good live versions of mostly familiar songs (if you’re familiar with Clapton’s career, that is) such as "Worried Life Blues," "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," "Driftin' Blues," and "Crossroads." From Just One Night we get "Early In The Morning" (even though the studio version also appears on disc 1) and the terrific rendition of "Double Trouble" that for me is the standout song of this set along with the aforementioned "Stormy Monday" and "Further On Up The Road." This collection isn't perfect, as I could've used without the song overlap (a version of "Have You Ever Loved A Woman" appears on both discs as well), disc 2 in particular could use a few more up-tempo tracks, not every blues song here merits inclusion (I therefore tend to program favorites or create playlists rather than play either disc all the way through), and "Wonderful Tonight" never was and never will be a blues song. When considering this product, it boils down to this: Eric Clapton's record company may be total repackaging whores, but as far as crass commercialism goes, this collection is extremely useful and is far more often than not a pleasure to listen to, as Eric is always at his most engaged, and his guitar playing is most apt to catch fire, when playing these blues songs which remain nearest and dearest to his heart.
Me and Mr. Johnson (Warner Bros. ’04) Rating: B
After a decent but disappointing duet album with B.B. King (2000's Riding With The King) and a largely forgettable follow up to Pilgrim (2001's Reptile, which is most notable for the appearance of The Impressions on backing vocals), Eric Clapton retrenched and returned to his first and dearest love, the blues. More specifically, the blues songs of Robert Johnson, the legendary ‘30s bluesman who allegedly made a deal with the devil at the crossroads that enabled him to play the guitar better than anyone else and who wrote a mere 29 songs (all available on Johnson's The Complete Recordings box set) before the devil came back for final payment. 14 of those 29 songs appear on this tribute to the man who influenced the music of Eric Clapton more than any other, and who Clapton had covered periodically throughout his career (though he's never covered any of these songs on record before), most famously on Cream’s version of “Crossroads.” Alas, much has happened since that young and hungry performance, and this elder, more “mature” Eric Clapton is (not at all unexpectedly) too "respectful" of the source material, rarely playing with reckless abandon but instead using it as an exercise for "the student" to pay homage to “the master.” Beefing up the arrangements of the originals (most of which featured just Johnson's ghostly voice and a single acoustic guitar, yet so amazing was his technique that it often sounded like several hands were plucking strings - one belonging to Satan, perhaps?) with help from highly competent friends such as Billy Preston (piano), Jerry Portnoy (harp), Steve Gadd (drums), Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II (guitars), none of these songs conjure up the spare, haunting dread of the originals. Indeed, up-tempo tracks like "They're Red Hot" and "Last Fair Deal Gone" could actually be described as "upbeat" or "jaunty," while other songs such as "When You Got A Good Friend," "Stop Breakin' Down Blues," and "If I Had Possession Of Judgement Day" shuffle along nicely but unremarkably, with Clapton's playing as proficient as ever but rarely truly catching fire. Though the album's loose, upbeat atmosphere is something of a surprise (a surprise I suspect old Robert wouldn't approve of), the album's polished sound and tame performances are par for the course if one considers his other recent efforts. It's still disappointing, but only mildly so, as Eric and company are extremely professional and these songs have stood the test of time for good reason. Still, I can't help but consider this album something of a missed opportunity, as it lacks both the highly personalized warmth of Unplugged and the impressive guitar heat of From The Cradle. After all, Robert Johnson isn't supposed to be "pleasant" or "easy listening," far from it, but that many of these songs are (aside from moodier, more intense attempts such as "Little Queen of Spades" and "Hellhound On My Tail") pleasant prevents Me and Mr. Johnson from being a complete disaster and elevates it to the ranks of being a mildly enjoyable also ran.