Live in San Diego appears so quickly on the heels of Eric Clapton’s latest studio album, I Still Do, a cynic might attribute the quick release to the lack of success generated by Slowhand’s twenty-third solo album. It is risky to compare the two titles, but even purely on their own terms, the differences are too marked to ignore: this near-decade old concert recording crackles with an energy far, far greater than the other EC record of 2016 (or, in fact, much of his recent output, from the studio or the stage).
Of course that’s due in large measure to the distinct differences in the musicians and this 2007 lineup may be the most guitar heavy ensemble Clapton has ever had. Still, the archetypal guitar hero finds his own level within this talented triumvirate and is ultimately inspired by his fretboard partners Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II. The latter also lends husky vocals at various points such as this upbeat arrangement of “Key to the Highway,” itself an example of an elevated level of imagination brought to bear on this choice of material.
Equally representative of the vintage tunes included in these seventeen tracks is “Got to Get Better in A Little While,” a selection from the days of Derek & the Dominos suffused with syncopation and including a flinty bass solo from Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Jordan’s short, sharp percussion interlude. Michelle John and Sharon White’s voices are as angelic as they are haunting on “Little Wing” and from the days of Cream, “Crossroads” finds contemporary bluesman Robert Cray sitting, but not superfluous. “Layla” also appears here next to the usual staples of Clapton’s repertoire in the form of “Cocaine” and “After Midnight,” yet the presence of the author of those two songs, J. J. Cale, permeates them with a passion comparable to the intricacy Trucks weaves into the coda of Clapton’s masterwork (all of which Simon Climie preserves in his production of Alan Douglas’ original recording).
His playing as well as Bramhall’s is similarly informed with as much intelligence as excitement , no doubt in part because they are performing the work of an artist–and with the artist himself–that moved each of them to pick up the guitar in the first place. Listen to how their instruments bristle throughout “Anyday:” all three men parcel out a surplus of ideas with the kind of restraint that only enhances the power of their musicianship. And, in fact, the generally emotive and often feverish vocal delivery of Eric himself is one of the real highlights here, bespeaking a level of enthusiasm far greater than that which he’s displayed within the more low key approach he’s taken to his various projects in the interim since this show was recorded.
It should then come as no surprise then, that on Live in San Diego, blues outnumber the middle-of-the-road likes of “Wonderful Tonight.” “Further On Up the Road,” “Little Queen of Spades” and “Motherless Children” pepper the set-list, the latter in a take much more aggressive than the one that opened Clapton’s 1974 comeback album 461 Ocean Boulevard; even as his commercial success often seemed to drain the fire from his guitaring, Slowhand’s always flashed intensity time and again, but rarely if ever in such sustained fashion as is documented here.