The PBS program was a telecast of eight songs from Eric Clapton’s 70th birthday tribute concert in 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and as is PBS’s usual maddening habit in pledge-break programs like this, we had our noses rubbed again and again in the fact that what we were seeing on TV was only a portion of a concert we could only get to see if we gave PBS a whacking great amount of money (like $180). My first horrible thought was that the producers of the concert would do it the way similar telecasts are generally done in the U.S., with a plethora of guest stars each plowing their way through one song or another from Clapton’s repertoire whether it suited them or not, but I was pleasantly surprised that the entire concert was performed by Eric Clapton and his band with no additional guests. What’s more, he was in absolutely phenomenal form: his chops have weathered the years and his former history of substance abuse (heroin and alcohol) surprisingly well, and his current band — aside from two rather buxom long-haired Black backup singers — isn’t that much younger than he is: the keyboard player (who stayed on electric organ instead of synthesizer most of the night) is a grey-haired, grey-bearded white man, the bassist (who used a five-string electric instrument and took up an old-fashioned bass fiddle for the two acoustic numbers) a bald Black guy, and the drummer another grey-head of indeterminate race.
One might compare Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke — two contemporary pop-music geniuses, one of whom died young with much of his potential tragically unfulfilled, and one of whom not only stayed alive but continued to produce great music — though in the case of Clapton and Hendrix is was the white guy who survived and the Black one who croaked early, not the other way around as with Louis and Bix. I’ve read Clapton’s autobiography and in it he makes the interesting comment that he had the soul of a sideman — he’s always been at his best surrounded by other musicians at his level and he never really wanted the added responsibilities of stardom — and after a brilliant start to his career with the Yardbirds (where he got the nickname “Slowhand” because he would break strings so often during his solos that audiences would start a slow hand-clap while waiting for him to put a new string on his guitar and resume), John Mayall and His Bluesbreakers and the “supergroup” Cream, a detour through the all-too-appropriately named “Blind Faith” with Stevie Winwood (he and Clapton would collaborate far more effectively in a round of concerts in 2008), then his first solo album and the Derek and the Dominoes project, which produced his searing electric love anthem “Layla,” then he started to slip. In 1974 Clapton released the album 461 Ocean Boulevard, which was hugely successful and broke one of Clapton’s biggest hits, “I Shot the Sheriff,” but after some good blues guitar on the opening track, a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children,” for the rest of the LP we got Clapton the pop singer rather than Clapton the blues-rock guitarist.
The pattern continued through additional albums like Slowhand and Backless, and his sales fell off in the 1980’s and made a comeback due to a terrible tragedy: his son Conor fell out of an open window of a 53-story building. In 1992 Clapton responded with a horribly sappy song called “Tears in Heaven,” which he recorded acoustically as part of an MTV Unplugged set that also included an acoustic version of “Layla” that turned it from a passionate love anthem to a mild display of affection. Since then he’s bounced back and forth between pop and tributes to the great American blues artists he originally tried to play like, and fortunately for his 70th birthday concert he stuck mostly with his blues repertoire: “Somebody Knocking at My Door,” “Who’s Been Fooling You?,” his cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” (which he originally started playing in 1968 as a member of Cream) and “Cocaine.” The other songs included among the eight PBS broadcast (which apparently includes only about half the full concert) included “I Shot the Sheriff” in a considerably more passionate version than the one he recorded in 1974, when the song’s composer, Bob Marley, was still a little-known cult artist desperately trying to build a U.S. following. I remember hearing Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974 and thinking it was one of the dumbest songs I’d ever heard — “He says he shot the sheriff but he didn’t shoot the deputy — so what?” Then I heard Marley’s version and I was totally blown away: I said to myself, “So that’s what that song is about!” Clapton began his 2015 Albert Hall version with his Black backup singers chanting the original wailing melody and then came in on voice and guitar, both far more powerfully than he had on the original record. (There was a pledge break after “I Shot the Sheriff” and the female host — there were two, one of each of the mainstream genders — made the silly statement that it was “an iconic Eric Clapton song.” Being me, I responded by yelling at the TV, “It is not! It’s an iconic Bob Marley song that Clapton covered!”)
After that he broke for an acoustic set of “Tears in Heaven” (which sounds less treacly now that Clapton is farther distant from the tragedy that inspired it, but it’s still not a very good song: Duke Ellington’s “Reminiscing in Tempo” it isn’t) and “Layla” (the woman who’d made an ass of herself in the previous pledge break redeemed herself somewhat when she lamented that Clapton no longer seems to perform the electric version live), and he also did the song “Wonderful Tonight” as a bow to his pop years. (I’d always assumed this was a cover of a J. J. Cale song, but according to Wikipedia, Clapton wrote it himself.) All in all, it was a marvelous show — good enough it piqued my curiosity to see the whole concert on DVD or Blu-Ray, though not enough to pay the extortionate “contribution” rates PBS and its local stations demand — with Clapton playing surprisingly well; he’s lost some chops but he can still play rings around a lot of younger players, and perhaps because of the sense of occasion, he turned in an excellent performance. He’s never had a great voice but it’s good enough to put most of his songs over, and age has given him a sense of lived experience that adds weight and gravitas to his show, while at the same time he’s remained fresh and vital enough as a musician that this concert could be enjoyed on its own merits and not written off as just another “remember how good he used to be?” nostalgia item.