Monday, June 29, 2009

Sixties Superstars Prove to Be Dynamic Duo

I just finished watching the recently released double DVD set of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood Live at Madison Square Garden in February 2008.

It left me with a couple of strong impressions. First, just how good Steve Winwood is. He started out as a 14-year-old R&B prodigy in the mid 1960s and has been a consummate musician ever since – even if he doesn’t quite have the stellar catalog of composition that some of his peers can claim (that’s not to say he hasn’t written some great music though). This DVD is a potent reminder of his musical power and charisma as a performer – especially in light of the fact that he has maintained a low profile for the last few decades.

Besides his obvious notable soulful singing and organ playing, Winwood proves himself a very capable sparring partner for Clapton on the six-string, too. There’s some impressive interplay between the two guitarists on “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and several other songs. Then, of course, there’s Winwood’s deliverance of “Georgia On My Mind” – presented with such inspired perfection that it must have Brother Ray smiling somewhere.

The second is with regard to Clapton. As a guitar player who appreciates blues and old-school rock (as well as more modern stuff), I can’t overestimate Clapton’s abilities and influence. But we have to admit that Eric has, for the most part, been on cruise control for years – interrupted only intermittently by inspired flashes of brilliance. While his style is firmly established and admirable, his playing is often not particularly exciting, challenging or innovative. On this release, however, it’s obvious that the pairing with his old Blind Faith crony has added some serious spark to ol’ Slowhand’s playing – even more, I would say, than 2005’s Cream reunion gigs (which I was fortunate to see in person at MSG).

This is most evident on the duo’s renditions of songs outside of Clapton’s usual repertoire: Traffic classics such as “Pearly Queen” and “Glad,” Blind Faith standards such as “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Buddy Holly’s “Well Alright,” as well as reworked versions of “Little Wing” and “Tell the Truth.”

Clapton really steps out of his comfort zone in tackling the Jimi Hendrix epic “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” a prospect that he admits is quite daunting during one of the many between song interview snippets. I can’t say that it surpasses Stevie Ray Vaughan’s renowned rendition of the tune, but this Winwood/Clapton version is less emulation and more interpretation. Yes, it does sound like Hendrix presented through Clapton’s trademark Buddy Guy/Freddie King/Albert King filter, but it is different enough from EC’s usual undertakings to be both interesting and successful. (Side Note: Winwood played organ on Jimi’s original recording, and he handles most of the lead vocal in the duo’s version).

The interviews with Clapton and Winwood are also very interesting and enlightening. Both men are articulate and thoughtful in recalling the evolution of their relationship and musical careers – including the obstacles, missteps and insecurities, as well as the motivations and triumphs.

Overall, this DVD is certainly worth a NetFlix viewing at the very least.


  1. Winwood, I've appreciated for years.
    Even when others were bashing his more pop stuff. But I can't disagree with you more about Clapton. To say the guy has been on cruise control for years (have you read his autobiography, by the way?)... to say that his playing is not particularly exciting or innovative ... Sorry, I strongly disagree. I really love that Madison Square Garden concert, though. And you appear to have liked it, at least. ;)

  2. Thanks for the comment, DeeDee!

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing Clapton's entire career, just pointing out that he hasn't really matched, on record at least, what earned him his "God" moniker in a long, long time – other than a couple of brief flashes of brilliance (e.g., "Unplugged," 1992, inspired by the death of his son and parts of the "24 Nights" live set, 1990). Even though I downplayed it in comparison to the aforementioned Winwood reunion, I did enjoy his Cream reunion stuff from 2005.

    And I actually liked much of his 1998 album "Pilgrim" quite a bit for its more modern boundary pushing, but that was really an exception and most critics were not impressed. Most of EC's output since the 1980s has contained one or two standout tracks with a lot of filler (again, context here is we're talking about one of the premier blues/rock guitarists in the world, hence high standards/expectations). Clapton's last great album may well have been "Slowhand" (1978) ... actually the more I think about it, the last truly STELLAR thing he did was Derek and the Dominos (one of the best ever). His Robert Johnson tribute stuff a few years ago was well-intentioned but only served to prove how superior Johnson was to ... well, nearly everybody then and since. Eric's "From the Cradle" blues tribute of the mid 1990's was good blues, but hardly revelatory (mainly reaffirming his indebtedness to Freddy King and Buddy Guy).

    I would bet that most guitar aficianodos would agree with my "cruise control" statement. That said, I'd still go see the guy play live without hesitation – as a band leader or as a high-profile sideman (a la his Roger Waters gig in 1984, which I saw) – and I've bought nearly all of his CDs. And, yes. I've read the autobiography.

  3. That autobiography is probably a good reason for declaring he's been on cruise control, aside from your expertise with the guitar which I'm in no position to dispute. I love Slowhand too; I also like Behind the Sun and Journeyman. As for the blues tributes, I will say this -- there's nothing revelatory when any of these guys do some kind of a tribute to an earlier great. At least I don't see it that way - it's a tribute, an attempt to honor someone who influenced them. And Clapton has a lot of influences. I just love the guy. The way you and Howard love Page. I can't help it. I love everything he does. I don't think he's a God, just one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. Hmm... that's not Godlike ... is it? ;)

    Now, have you ever seen this clip of Page from 1957 ( He's playing on a BBC program, the Huw Wheldon Show. It's priceless. Howard particularly likes that he tells Wheldon he wants to to into biological research.

  4. Not sure the book influenced my opinion any, but I appreciate where you're coming from on this. "Behind the Sun" had its moments, more so than "Journeyman," which had some good blues but a bunch of schmaltzy pop stuff too, IMO. My point about the Johnson tribute, I guess, was that as well-intentioned as it might have been, he would've been better off doing an album of new stuff. The one he did recently with J.J. Cale had its moments, but then again Cale is a renowned songwriter.

    Yes, I've seen that clip of Page on Brit TV at age 13 or whatever. Precious. Who knew he'd go into chemical research instead. :-)