Monday, December 30, 2013


Eric Clapton is still God.  At least, when it comes to boxed sets.  The whole idea of the big, four-disc, career-spanning compilation started with E.C. back in 1988 with the release of Crossroads, which sold several million copies, and proved that there was a huge appetite for bonus tracks, booklets, and best-of cuts.  Since then, the Clapton vaults have regularly put forward deluxe editions, several live compilations, and remasters.  Unplugged just got that treatment in the fall, and now is followed by this forensic look at Clapton in '74-'75.

This was the return of Clapton from three years of mostly sitting on the sidelines.  Derek & the Dominoes had imploded, and he had developed a heroin habit that kept him from recording.  Finally clean, he headed to Florida to record with Tom Dowd, but didn't have a lot of ideas.  Luckily, he still had a few pals.  A band was assembled featuring a bunch of Tulsa players, and their laid-back groove perfectly fitted where Clapton wanted to be, far away from guitar heroics.  The result was 461 Ocean Boulevard, and the huge hit, I Shot The Sheriff.  It remains a strong album, filled with tracks fueled by the groove, whether the reggae feel of the hit, the chunky update of Willie & the Hand Jive, or the blues funk of Motherless Children and Get Ready.  It also includes one of his loveliest ballads, Let It Grow, showing his increasing interest in vocals and song craft over jamming.

It was so big, the cast reunited months later for the follow-up, There's One In Every Crowd, but unfortunately there were even less ideas going in, and precious little came out of the sessions.  Instead, the group tried to do much of the same again, with reggae, gospel and blues, even trying to reclaim a track originally scheduled for a second Dominoes album.  Clapton even felt the need to write a sequel to Marley's Sheriff, and Don't Blame Me picks up the story about the deputy.  It's actually pretty good, but shows that inspiration wasn't readily available.  The public picked up on it, and the album was a failure, not even making the Top 20.  The comeback was in jeopardy.

Luckily things were better on the road, where the band had been loving doing the 461 numbers, plus Clapton classics and blues jams.  A live album followed in '75, E.C. Was Here, restoring him to higher honour.  There are so many Clapton live albums (and natch, boxed sets of all-live), that it's hard to keep track, but this one is a good one, made better with an entire bonus disc of tracks on this collection.  Expanding the set with lots of favourites not on the original, 40 minutes has now blossomed to over 2 hours, and where the LP version included mostly lengthy blues numbers, this now has Sheriff, Hand Jive, Badge, Little Wing and lots more.  It's the highlight of this multi-disc set.

The rest of the bonuses aren't that interesting.  The sessions for 461 and ..Every Crowd really didn't include much of note, even though there's lots of out-takes.  The best addition is Clapton's one-off single release, a reggae-fied version of Dylan's Knockin' On Heaven's Door.  A final discs features 30-plus minutes of cuts done with bluesman Freddie King at the same time, with Clapton and his band, but again, it's not noteworthy stuff, more for completion's sake.  The final tally here:  Six discs, the first 461 and it's bonuses, the second There's One... with its extras, three and four offering up tons of concert material, disc five the Freddie King sessions, and the sixth some audiophile mixes, the 5.1 and quad versions of 461, for those who dig the big sound.  The package is cool, an off-sized box, like a thin photo album, the essay passable, the music hit-and-miss.  Possibly worth it to fans for the grand live stuff, and the improved sound for 461.

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