Sunday, October 18, 2009

Eric Clapton: Ramblin' On His Mind

Our story begins in 1964 as a young man we might call "Yardbird" roams the streets of London with a likeminded chum, the two lads searching for any Jazz record shops that have a specialty Blues section. Our hero plays electric guitar in a brash and raucous rock 'n' roll band, a popular group making some waves on the British club scene, but his real love is the Blues, and he dislikes the louder and poppier direction taken by his fellow 'Birds. So when the honored leader of a band called the Bluesbreakers approaches him with an offer to join as lead guitarist, he casually steps aboard.

That leader was John Mayall and the guitarist, of course, Eric Clapton. Mayall quickly persuaded Eric to listen to Freddie King and others, gave him free run of the massive Mayall record collection, and soon happily saw Clapton switch from a Fender Telecaster to a Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall amp--which gave the guitarist a unique-in-U.K., blurred and "dirty" sound immediately memorialized on the album they cut together, titled something like Blues Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton, but often called the "Beano" album for short due to the British comic book Clapton is shown reading in the cover photo.

In the nearly 45 years since that fortuitous merger of talents, Clapton has morphed from hotshot rocker ("Clapton is God") to incipient Bluesman (his apprenticeship with Mayall), from brazen soloist driving supergroup Cream to regressive support player for Delaney and Bonnie, from electric Blues powerhouse as Derek and the Dominos to reggaefied pop hero ("I Shot the Sheriff"), from worldwide star in love with his best friend's wife (George and Patti Harrison) to grieving father ("Tears in Heaven"), and finally to beloved elder statesman of every sort of Blues and Rock music, able to take the stage and more than hold his own with Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Cray, Carlos Santana, Duane Allman, all four Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, and scores more, all the way from backing Sonny Boy Williamson to duelling with Doyle Bramhall II, Clapton's favorite guitarslinger foil these days.

And every step of the way, Clapton has pursued the fleeting ghost of Delta great Robert Johnson, performing one or two or several Johnson songs regularly whether on stage or on record. It began when Mayall talked him into doing "Ramblin' on My Mind" back on that splendid 1966 Blues Breakers album; and has continued through the years since. Cream's signature tune was a balls-to-the-wall version of "Crossroads"; and Eric dropped further hints of his fascination here and there on various solo releases (playing "Come On In My Kitchen, "Malted Milk," "Walkin' Blues," "From Four Till Late," and other Johnson songs). Then finally in this new century he took the bull by the horns and released a whole album, Me and Mr. Johnson, offering 14 of the songs written or at least codified on 78 by Robert...

But our story doesn't end there. The Johnson CD was largely an unplanned accident, the booked musicians trying to fill unused studio time. As many critics and Blues fans immediately declared, although a popular sales success, the album was too tame and shallow, just not gritty enough--sorely in need of some of that lone-guitar firepower and old 78s crackle-and-hiss authenticity that fills the deep grooves of every one of the 40-some known takes of Johnson's 29 recorded songs. Slick production and studio gadgetry needed to recede, and the muscular musicians to step forward, especially Clapton himself.

So Eric went back into the studio--two of them actually--and then to a pair of unexpected other settings, ostensibly as rehearsals for the Mr. Johnson tour, but fortunately leading to a terrific DVD and accompanying CD called Sessions for Robert J. And this time--to my ears and eyes anyway--he got things well nigh perfect. Each of the four taped sessions in fact has its own distinct flavor and choice of musicians or style. The initial gathering in England fielded a full electric band in support of Eric's amazing vocals and stinging lead guitar, including keyboards by Chris Stainton and Billy Preston (both of them especially fine on the fills), snarling second guitar from Bramhall, electric bass by Nathan East, and power drumming by Jazz session ace Steve Gadd. The versions of "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" and "Sweet Home Chicago" recorded thus are a smashing vindication of Clapton's near five decades dedicated to the electric blues. He and Bramhall fit together like hand in glove, but it's a combat-hardened fist in a heavy-bag boxing glove!

Clapton and the guys then shifted to the States, stopping at a small studio in Irving, Texas, where the solid six recorded several songs as a largely acoustic group, with East on guitar-bass and the duelling leads snapping strings and sliding the Delta (Bramhall on a dobro or National steel). "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" (think "Rollin' and Tumblin'"), "Milkcow's Calf Blues," and "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" are premier examples of the new, learned-over-decades Blues power in Clapton's vocals. He can cry or elide, sound strangled or mushmouthed, hit a nice falsetto, and just generally get closer to the original Johnson spirit (without trying to sound Black), moans, whoops and all, than the majority of white players essaying boringly ordinary Chicago Blues, well-played but poorly sung, all the 12-bar, shuffle-beat cliches intact... while most Black listeners no longer pay heed and certainly none of their hard-earned money.

At any rate, Clapton and crew nailed the sound that Robert Johnson himself probably wanted and may have enjoyed occasionally when playing live (not on his records), that of several acoustic players pulling together, briefly fitting "tight like that."

Yet even more powerfully representative are the songs from session three--Clapton and Doyle Bramhall only, on five brilliant guitar/dobro duets (great stinging versions of "Terraplane Blues" and "Me and the Devil Blues," plus tender-as-a-thorn takes on "From Four Until Late" and "Love in Vain") recorded as afternoon winds down into evening in the very Dallas building, now largely abandoned, where Johnson recorded his last sessions. Robert's were solo performances, of course, but he routinely played duets with his pals and travelling companions like Johnny Shines. (The never-filmed script I wrote on Johnson's life decades ago made a point of portraying Robert and Johnny performing together, in clubs and on the street both; many witnesses to Johnson's career spoke later of his willingness to "jam" with others--though he was also chary of showing anyone his secret guitar-fingering tricks.)

Ultimately, though his recordings sound so rich and complex that many musicians on first hearing (among them Keith Richards and Clapton himself) were convinced there was another guitarist adding backup, the fact is that Robert recorded alone only. Clapton explains, in one of several interview moments included on the DVD, maybe giving himself an alibi in advance, that Johnson's astonishing solo guitar work--performed, remember, while he was singing too, often in a competing rhythm--requires skills beyond the abilities of nearly every Blues player. (Sold his soul to the devil, anyone?)

Then, sitting in a Southern California hotel room for session four, Clapton proceeds to play and sing scene-stealing solo versions of "Stones in My Passway," "Love in Vain," and (my favorite) "Ramblin' on My Mind." Eric admits it took days of hard preparation, but comparing his tentative Blues Breakers approach of 40-some years ago to the recent "Ramblin'," with his surety of voice and vision and that impossible-yet-perfect fingering, is tantamount to matching apples and oranges--or dwarf seedlings with giant Sequoias maybe!

So in the course of the DVD's 97 minutes, mesmerized viewers get to experience the mature Eric Clapton, Bluesman, at his best. His personal statement included in the definitive Johnson box set of 20 years ago remains pertinent today:

"Robert Johnson is to me the most important blues musician who ever lived. He was true, absolutely, to his own vision, and as deep as I have gotten into the music over the last 30 years, I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human race, really. I know when I first heard it, it called to me in my confusion; it seemed to echo something I had always felt."

Hellhound on the trail or dedicated lifelong acolyte, Clapton finally caught up with Robert and laid his ghost to rest.

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