Eric Clapton Give Me Strength: The 1974/1975 Recordings (BOX SET REVIEW)

It’s a measure of Eric Clapton’s iconic stature as the prototypical guitar hero that his extended career encompasses so many stellar milestones.
The tenure with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers remains a touchpoint in contemporary blues even as it gave way to Slowhand’s collaboration with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce in the groundbreaking power trio format with Cream. And while EC’s solo career effectively began right after his tenure as a sideman to Delaney and Bonnie, who supplied accompaniment and production on his eponymous album, his subsequent work with Derek and The Dominos is as much a landmark in contemporary rock as the whole of his body of work.

It’s arguable all of Clapton’s subsequent recordings pale in comparison. But even if that’s true, his return to active recording and touring following his post-Dominos hiatus is more than a little noteworthy: not only did it elevate his name back into the hierarchy of mainstream popularity, the concept and execution of his first three albums in the mid-Seventies set the template for his work for years to come. And while on 461 Ocean Blvd, There’s One in Every Crowd and EC Was Here, Clapton downplayed his own guitar playing in favor of personal expression in choice of material as he honed his vocal skills, the elements he crafted within this sound remained of a piece with his previous work.

The expanded amalgamation of the formal and previously unreleased tracks that comprise Give Me Strength (in its deluxe format including a Blu-Ray compilation of alternate mixes housed in a hardcover book format) reveal a continuity in this work that belies what at first seemed not only a tentative reentry into the public consciousness, but a radical departure of form. Eric Clapton’s sense of direction makes much more sense with the benefit of judicious hindsight upon the likes of which pivots the success of such archival collections.

461 Ocean Blvd: Almost doubled in length (as are the accompanying discs in this package) with eighteen cuts, Eric Clapton’s initial post-addiction recovery album gives the lie to his forthright decision to downplay his role as a soloist in favor of ensemble work. The crack band he assembled with the help of bassist Carl Radle played with much of the tasteful efficiency of The Dominos before guitarist Duane Allman joined their recording sessions (hear the understated cooking on two versions of the instrumental “Getting Acquainted) and this remastering only elevates the clarity of sound producer Tom Dowd oversaw at the time of the Florida recordings. In addition, the extra cuts reaffirm Clapton’s blues roots in a way the original album did not, through the inclusion of “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” and “Lonesome Road Blues.”

As originally released, the LP proper concentrated on a mélange of R&B (“Willie & The Hand Jive”) mixed with pop and contemporary folk (“Let It Grow, “Please Be with Me”), all highlighted by the cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” that, in retrospect, sounds even more lightweight than it did at the time of its release (both EC’s manager Robert Stigwood and producer Tom Dowd assertively advocated for its inclusion).

There’s One in Every Crowd: EC’s hit from the previous record may well have belied his passion for reggae, but his discovery of the genre (and the virtues of The Wailers) no doubt led to recording its follow-up in Jamaica, where, perhaps not surprisingly, he followed the instincts of his musical taste more directly, again under Dowd’s continued tutelage. Though they were augmented by local players, the same lineup exercised taste and restraint as Slowhand gave more prominence to traditional blues in the form of Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” (and within the bonus cuts, the heretofore unreleased take on “It Hurts Me too), not to mention direct references to the elemental genre with “Little Rachel” and “Singing the Blues.”

In the context of the gospel and country blues textures, Eric’s affection for the genius of Bob Dylan manifest itself with a reggae arrangement of “Knockin on Heaven’s Door,” released originally only as a single, and his growing proclivity for pure melody appeared in “Pretty Blues Eyes,” as well as the closing (largely instrumental) medley of “High” and “Opposites;” the result of which is more seamless piece of work that its predecessor by far.

EC Was Here (Remixed and Expanded 2 CDs): This double set of live recordings begs the question of what effect this album might’ve had on Eric Clapton’s solo career had it been released in this form. It’s in line with the artist’s preference to downplay his guitar hero persona that he chose not to do so, even though in 1975 such two-record concert pieces were commonplace. Despite the fact much of this same material has already been released on ‘Deluxe Editions’ of 461 and Slowhand as well as Clapton’s very first box set Crossroads (and its sequel). This release becomes important because the track sequencing of excerpts from five distinct performances in the successive years of 1974 and 1975 replicate the dynamics of a stellar show from Eric Clapton and his band at that point in their partnership.

Straight blues predominate here in the form of “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” but songs of Clapton’s own, such as “Badge,” homage to his peers in the form of Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and recognition of his past work including Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord,” and one of Layla’s pinnacles “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad,” coexist effectively in related style of Johnny Otis’ “Willie & The hand Jive.”

The Criteria Sessions with Freddie King: Eric Clapton’s best playing has been distinguished by a passion and simplicity where the melodious tone is in perfect proportion to its cutting edge. Slowhand hasn’t always exhibited those virtues throughout his career, but he’d no doubt always give credit to Freddie King for fostering them as fundamentals of his personal style, so it’s only appropriate Clapton would invite the blues master to jam while recording at the Criteria Studios in Florida. EC’s band backs him and his mentor on a small handful of selections, the highlight of which is twenty-two minutes of “Gambling Woman Blues” where the exchanges are those of an instrumental conversation between two eloquent spokesmen for the blues. It’s a fitting conclusion to this package, especially as it proceeds directly from the live showpieces that comprise the majority of Give Me Strength and further reaffirms Eric Clapton was not wholly forsaking his roots nor his forte as a guitarist at this period of his career.

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