Eric Clapton, Budokan, Oct. 1997

Almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

Considering what he’s been through during his illustrious and stormy life, no one can blame Eric Clapton for playing the first seven songs of his Oct. 13 show at Budokan sitting down. Still, it’s not what I’d call rock’n’roll. Some might call it the blues, but as I recall Muddy Waters continued gamely upright in front of the microphone right up until he stopped performing.

Though I’ve always felt Clapton’s phenomenal success has progressed without his active involvement, there was definitely calculation at work up there on stage. By launching the show with the kind of Unplugged set that reinvigorated his career for the umpteenth time earlier this decade, Clapton could move from the least possibly taxing material he’s ever had the good luck to make millions off of into something that requires a little more iron in the blood, namely electric blues and, yes, rock’n’roll.

Those in the sold-out arena who boarded the Clapton star express with MTV Unplugged were perfectly happy to hear their faves up front, and though squeals of delighted recognition greeted the choppy chords of “Layla,” I’m sure there were a lot of people in the audience besides myself who felt cheated that he would opt to play the peppy acoustic version rather than the fiercely desperate electric one. After all, it ranks up there with Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as a testimony to the mortification of unrequited love, but the Unplugged version is more like a salacious wink: We know who’s getting it tonight.

As the Unstanding set continued I relaxed, since the format allowed him to get those songs I care least about out of the way. “Change the World,” the most overplayed number one hit of the 90s, was mercifully short, and the lachrymose “Tears in Heaven” was over before I could find my pocket tissues.

Clapton also used the set to test out some new, decidedly undistinguished material, as well as a jaunty version of Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that was curiously missing a guitar solo, and when he finally rose to his feet it was only 30 minutes into the concert. Economy, as they say, is the sign of a true professional.

And that’s to be appreciated, since Clapton’s post-Layla career has been anything but economical. EC is surely one of the greatest blues sidemen of all time, and his reputation as a superstar solo artist has been based on progressively lowered expectations. He himself pooh-poohs his singing skills and rightly so. The few songs he writes are so modest as to be little more that variations on a hackneyed theme, and his choice of cover material outside of blues classics has stayed a steady course straight down the middle of the road.

None of these factors have hurt his career, which points up the strength of Clapton’s image as both a commercially successful “sensitive artist” and a guitar god. The notoriously weak singing skills, especially when they’re contrasted with a blistering emotive guitar fill, have always made Clapton’s blues appear more heartfelt than they really are. Some critics complain that while Clapton’s blues playing is as innovative as anything the Delta and Chicago masters did, his reedy vocals are an insult to their memory.

But that, in fact, would seem to be the point. The black bluesmen that Clapton has always honored with cover versions of their material leavened their pain with vituperation and raunch. Clapton’s style is all pain and as such it has had a singular effect on his ever-burgeoning audience, who mistake it for emotional depth. Maybe it was the drugs; maybe it was the longing for the legendary unrequited-love-in-waiting, Patty Boyd Harrison; maybe it was the weather; but whatever it was, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is the only moment on public record where the man’s singing stands up to his playing. And it’s not because he found out how to sound black (thanks to Delaney Bramlett, another white guy). It’s because the pain of the blues was joined so terrifically with the unmistakable joy of making great personal music.

That isn’t to say Clapton simply goes through the motions now. He was totally engaged in the music he was playing at Budokan, but the fact that the music truly soared only when the guitar was front-and-center proves that “Layla” was one of those unbelievably happy flukes. Aside from the blues covers, the electric rock songs I heard revealed an artistic ambition more along the lines of Chris Rea. “I Shot the Sheriff” never sounded more unreggae-like. The already awkward story-song “Beautiful Tonight” was made pointless with the deletion of the last verse. And while “Cocaine” provided the only vocal spontaneity of the evening, the arrangement was muddy and lacked punch.

“Tearin’ Us Apart” was a much more convincing rock performance, probably because it’s basically a good song, but also because it sounded like the band members were all thinking along the same lines. The choice of musicians was more indicative of superstar prerogatives than it was of stylistic shrewdness: Joe Sample on piano, Chris Stainton on organ, Andy Fairweather Low on guitar, and Steve Gadd on drums.

None of these guys are slouches, but their individual styles don’t always meld into a comfortable whole. Sample, a fusion specialist, finished his showpiece solo in “Old Love” with a huge Rachmaninov glissando that was hilariously inappropriate. Gadd’s grooves never fell into place on the rock songs and he didn’t swing enough on the R&B. Low, with his thinning hair and wire-rims, looked like an overage grad student next to Clapton’s untenured-assistant-professor-on-holiday in T-shirt, painter pants, and horn-rims. Their vocal duet on “Sunshine of Your Love” reminded me that some rock songs just cannot be performed convincingly by persons over 21.

The blues covers, however, made me sorry I missed the last tour, which was “Nothing But…” However ambivalently I reacted to the other music, my attention was bracingly focused as soon as Clapton entered a solo. Thought and action came together with perfect clarity, regardless of whether it was a shuffle blues like Freddie King’s “I’m Tore Down,” a jump blues like B.B. King’s “Everyday I Have the Blues,” a walking blues like Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” or a slow burner like “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” which featured the only solo of the evening that lasted more than three minutes.

In fact, I’d say that the most regretful development on Clapton’s road to true superstardom is that he no longer indulges in the kind of entire-LP-side solos that were de rigeur when he was merely God. Punk rock supposedly destroyed the long, self-indulgent instrumental solo, and I tip my hat to those who helped make Keith Emerson as redundant as his playing. But the fact that Clapton didn’t play a single 10-minute breakout at Budokan is as perfect an example of baby-out-with-the-bathwater as I can think of. Those days are gone, and you can’t bring them back. It would be easier to change the world.

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