Eric Clapton is a legend—a status conferred upon most musicians if they’re still rocking at 70 years of age. In another year or two, people will succumb to calling Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler as a legend. Being a “legend” is mostly a simple matter of longevity, which is why it doesn’t do justice to reasons or circumstances under which we are still listening to Clapton.
Clapton is a cut above legend; he’s a blues master. A master has few equals in matters of talent and the blues as a genre has relatively few interesting contemporaries. For any comparison to Clapton’s work, relevant parallel examples run thin. Buddy Guy is another guitar ninja and Gary Clark Jr. is a fine bit of fresh blues. Still, nothing rages against the dying of the light quite like Clapton.
Eagle Rock Entertainment is doing posterity a big favor by capturing Slowhand at 70 - Live at the Royal Albert Hall, rendering Clapton’s shiny new milestone with gorgeously up close audio on the two CDs and a glossy concert video that keeps tight focus on the action. The Blu-ray audio options are LPCM stereo, if viewers want the same sound as the recordings, or the more immersive DTS-HD master audio, if viewers want to sit amidst the somewhat dirtier sound of the crowd. The latter turns out to be a great choice toward the end of this concert, when the whole band starts to vibe on some kooky crowd antics and consequently amps up their energy beyond the expected level for the tail end of a set list.
I listened to the two CDs probably 20 times apiece before watching the Blu-ray, and still found very many nuances in the show by way of the camera work that couldn’t be conveyed through the audio alone. For example, the keyboard work shown in the video on “Tears in Heaven” passes for a shimmering lap steel in the audio. You also get to see Clapton tuning onstage and fiddling with his own amp between “Key to the Highway” and “Tell the Truth” on disc one.
Diehard imitators will be tempted to scope the amp settings, but the camera pans mercilessly quickly across them. You see that when Clapton sits down for the four songs in his acoustic set at the beginning of disc two, the back up singers likewise pull up a chair. During “Crossroads”, you can watch him produce palmed picks from thin air, then disappear them into the magic of his finger style playing. You can see him finally break a sweat 16 songs into a set of 19.
From a casual listener’s perspective, this has enough greatest hits in familiar enough composition to render a substantial chunk of his many other “collected” configurations irrelevant. When you get right down to it, Clapton works better on stage than in a studio. Furthermore, his very best stage is Royal Albert Hall, where he has played more than 200 times. Indeed, Clapton is so comfortable up there in his moccasins on his geometric pattern rug that he might as well have invited those 5,500 fans into his living room.
Of his 11 other live albums, only 24 Nights is also recorded at the famed London concert hall. 24 Nights culled only the absolute most perfect moments from 42 concerts that happened 25 years ago; it isn’t one show from beginning to end and it isn’t current. Slowhand at 70 has four more tracks, and the only tracks these two live albums have in common are “Pretending” and “Wonderful Tonight”.
Safe money says this album will some day soon be considered an important historical document. Clapton has long been hinting that turning 70 means facing retirement, complaining that he can’t hack a grueling tour schedule, anymore. For 2016, he has not announced anything beyond going back to Tokyo for a five-night residency at Budokan. Slowhand at 70 displays so much bright, tight charm across the entire band that their retirement seems hilariously unfair. Far from overstaying his welcome, Clapton is still killing it at live shows more convincingly than others half his age.
The best part is that he doesn’t care to show off about it. He still noodles around on two-minute intros that have little connection to the pace or melody of the next song on deck. He still wanders away from the mic unless he needs it right in his face to sing, eyes closed most of the show. There is zero banter beyond “good evening”, “thank you”, and “we had a real good time tonight”. There is no parade of fancy vintage guitars hoisted aloft by self-important tech guys, just the same one acoustic and one electric that he’s been using forever. He is both sedate and precise. He is unsmiling but not at all uncharitable.
Slowhand at 70 delivers the same Clapton we have known and loved for years, and proves that Clapton himself still delivers with an easy grace. Perhaps “Cocaine” has grown more bitter since he first covered it in the late ‘70s. Definitely “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight” mean something new since his divorce in the late ‘80s. This is the best “Hoochie Coochie Man” you can find, now that Muddy Waters himself is gone. The closing kicker of “High Time We Went” is a slam dunk despite the absence of Joe Cocker.
Clapton has been thrice inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame—more than any other artist, period. Rolling Stone called him the second greatest guitarist in the world—and Jimi Hendrix is dead. From J.J. Cale to Big Bill Broonzy, from expansive setlist to powerfully mean chops, Clapton’s 70th birthday show is an exemplary slice of one of the last blues masters.
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