At this point in his life and career, Eric Clapton has nothing to prove to anyone but himself. He’s gone from being called God on now famous graffiti that embarrassed him but others found justified, to later being called a snooze during a stretch of less than inspiring records and perhaps overexposure.
From The Yardbirds to The Bluesbreakers with John Mayall to Cream, to the cobbled together “supergroup” Blind Faith and then, showing no ego, as a sideman in Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, the group that had opened for Blind Faith.
His association with Delaney Bramlett brought Clapton out of the sideman shadows and his eponymous star-studded Bramlett-produced yielded the hit “After Midnight” and a long association thereafter with J.J. Cale to the benefit of both.
Later came Derek and the Dominoes and while it’s considered great today, it was initially met with mediocre reviews and sales. Over the subsequent years Clapton released hit albums like Slowhand produced by Glyn Johns and 461 Ocean Boulevard as well as some less distinguished ones like Money and Cigarettes.
Clapton’s collaborative work continued, especially for charities, but his stardom diffused until the release in 1992 of Unplugged, which hit number one o the Billboard charts and eventually sold more than ten million copies. “Tears in Heaven” co-written with Will Jennings brought Clapton to yet another generation of music fans who commiserated with his expression of the loss of his four year old son in a tragic accident.
Tragedy and loss haunted Clapton throughout much of his life, the details of which you can find for yourself and no doubt that played into both his own bouts with addiction and alcoholism as well as his notable charitable generosity.
He continued his charitable and collaborative work, often reuniting with former bandmates like Jeff Beck and Steve Winwood, and when Unplugged was re-released, re-mastered with far better sound and with addition tunes, it reached a new audience and rekindled interest among his old fans, many of whom had drifted off.
In 2013 he signed with his current label Surfdog and released Old Sock, his 21st studio album. It was a mixed bag of covers and a few originals, all of which sounded like the cover photo looked: an honest portrait of a veteran artist getting older, looking for comfortable retirement but not yet quite finished.
He’d been a bluesman, a guitar god/hero, a rocker, a pop star, a reggae artist, an acoustic folkie and a standards bearer. He was all of those things on Old Sock, which was of course competently drawn but less than inspired, though the blues, his original muse and constant inspiration lurked everywhere and it did top the Billboard indie charts and reached number seven on the top two hundred.
In the spring of 2014 Clapton announced that he’d soon be retiring but before doing so he celebrated his seventieth birthday by playing seven nights at The Royal Albert Hall. It was also fifty years since his Royal Albert Hall debut. Eagle Rock Entertainment released in November of 2015 Slowhand at 70—Live at the Royal Albert Hall on all formats including a triple-gatefolded three LP set that included the concert DVD, also available separately on Blu-ray.
I hadn’t planned to buy the package but a friend insisted both that the concert sound was spectacular but more importantly, that Clapton was on fire and inspired as he’d not been for some time, backed by Paul Carrack (and Chris Stainton on keyboards, Nathan East on bass, and Sharon and and Michelle John on backing vocals.
I bit and glad I did. Best Clapton in a long time, very well recorded, packaged and pressed a live compendium of Clapton’s “greatest hits” and more.
Which brings me to I Still Do, this new Glyn Johns produced album that is a major event musically and sonically. When you strip it all away and stand musically naked, which is what this production does, you are fully exposed and you’d better bring your “A” game. That goes for both Clapton and crew and Glyn Johns too!
The point here was not to produce anything new orrevolutionary but rather to do what Eric Clapton does best, with concentrated, bracing intensity and vitality. That is what the album does. This is not the sound of guy ready to hang it up.
The album opens with a slow blues—a cover of Leroy Carr’s classic “Alabama Woman Blues”. Clapton brings a depth of soul to his singing that’s far removed from an earlier stretch were some of his vocals sounded “phoned in”. Drummer Henry Spinetti sets a slow, slinky heavy beat that Clapton slices into with searing guitar lines.
Everyone’s on fire and it doesn’t take more than a few bars before you realize you’re hearing a rich, organic, transparent artifact-free sound that’s rarely heard on modern recordings (probably because this all analogue recording and mix is not a “modern” recording!).
What you also notice is how Dave Bronze’s bass lines don’t just “pop” but instead sustain the anchored note and decay slowly into the next one, helping to produce a rich musical “whole”. And then of course there’s Glyn Johns’ fabulous drum sound. It’s real stereo not panned mono discontinuity so it’s believably real sounding and the louder you crank it the better and more believable it sounds!
There’s a JJ Cale song that you’ll recognize as one of his even without the credits, and a side ending “I Will Be There” by Paul Brady and John O’Kane (sung by Brady and Mary Black in 1997) that veers towards the overly-sentimental but doesn’t sink into it. On that track you’ll notice how Johns puts the back up singers intimately in the stereo space and not as separate accessories. That connection helps sell the song.
“Spiral” written by Clapton, Andy Fairweather Low and Simon Climie (who produced Old Sock) is where the album, simmering up to this point, catches fire. It’s an affirmation of a life making music and its vitality, particularly Clapton’s vocal, let’s you know he’s refreshed and not ready to retire. “I gotta have it!” he exclaims.
“Catch the Blues” is a smooth, suave wah-wah drenched Clapton original with a Latin beat that harkens back to something from Slowhand but instead of a gloss-over, the intense vibe sucks you in again aided by the back up singers and how they are placed almost breathing down Clapton’s neck (in a good way!). The second side ends with an homage to Skip James’s “Cypress Grove”.
Side three opens with the good hearted bedtime chestnut “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” that’s been covered by everyone from Paul Robeson to Perry Como and Sarah Vaughan. It’s something McCartney could have covered on his Kisses on the Bottom album, here simply and intimately produced. A wailing, blistering “Stones in My Passway” with an intense Clapton vocal serves as a wake-up call (listen to how the tambourine has been recorded) and a bridge to an effective, accordion flecked cover of “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” that’s among the album’s most “live”, three-dimensional and best sounding tracks.
Now the album’s fully engulfed but the final side starting with the traditional “I’ll be Alright” (the inspiration for “We Shall Overcome”) followed by a raucous cover of “Somebody’s Knockin’” an unreleased JJ Cale tune, and ending with the classic “I’ll Be Seeing You” hits the sublime button musically and sonically. I’m sure the album wasn’t recorded in the final presentation order, but the sound and the performances peak on the final side with “I’ll Be Seeing You” sure to leave long time fans with more than a twinge of nostalgia and a pathway to a long listen back at an amazing recorded career.
I’ve played this one repeatedly since it arrived yesterday and as a demonstration of indelibly pure, gimmick-free music making from all involved and record production excellence, it goes right to the top of any list. The double 45rpm 180g MPO pressing (at least my sealed copy) was quiet, flat and flawless. Don’t miss this one!
A high performance audio system is not necessary to enjoy I Still Do, but the better your system, the greater will be the sonic and musical pleasures. I feel sorry for people who stream this AAA production and think they’re hearing it. They are getting a shadow reflection.