What Have You Done For Us Lately, Eric Clapton?
In What Have You Done For Us Lately?, we examine the recent output by legendary artists. Yeah, we’re happy when they return with a new album… but really, just how happy are we? We’ll gauge their output since 2000, take a hard look and see how their recent material has held up… and maybe help you to find a few gems that you overlooked.
Eric Clapton is the only artist to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame three times, for his membership in The Yardbirds and Cream, as well as his solo career. The fact that E.C. has also enjoyed membership in two other legendary groups, Blind Faith and Derek & The Dominoes, is even more impressive. On top of that, he’s had a solo career that has yielded tons of classic jams, including “Let It Rain,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “She’s Waiting,” “Tears In Heaven,” plus fresh takes on “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Cocaine” and “After Midnight.”
And while his popularity has never dipped beneath arena headlining status, his last few albums haven’t gotten much attention. So is that justified? Here, we take a look at Clapton’s output, both as a solo artist and a duet partner, since 2000. During this time, Clapton’s albums have been polite, and generally speaking, they’ve been accepted politely. That seems to be the case with his latest, Old Sock, released March 24. Rolling Stone gave it three stars, saying, “This is comfort music, made by a guy who seems to be chilling with friends. If it sometimes sounds too comfortable, well, Clapton has probably earned it.”
That seems to be the prevailing thought about the man: When he made what most would regard as his best music in the ’60s and ’70s, he was going through drug addiction, relationship issues and volatile band lineups. These days, he’s a happily married, family-oriented, drug-free guy who puts tons of time, effort and money into his Crossroads drug rehab in Antigua. It seems almost churlish to begrudge him his happiness, and his contributions to modern music are beyond reproach. That said, let’s check out his recent output.
Clapton has always loved working with, and calling attention to, the blues legends who first inspired him. The cover – with Clapton playing chauffeur while King is in the back set – tells the story: It’s more of a King album produced and supported by Clapton, who is extremely deferential to his idol throughout. Curiously, Clapton hired three other hot guitarists – Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall II and Andy Fairweather-Low – for the album. With Clapton and King, why would you need any other six-stringers? The setlist was fun: the title track (a cover of a John Hiatt song), plus blues numbers from both men’s catalogs (“Key To The Highway,” “Help The Poor”) and other covers (Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming”).
Critical Response: The press welcomed the collaboration,with Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, calling it a “triumphant collaboration.” Jazztimes said “The great majority of selections here is downhome, gritty and inspired.” It also won a GRAMMY for Best Traditional Blues Album.
Sales: Crazily, this was the best-selling album of King’s career, selling over two million copies in the U.S. It topped Billboard‘s Blues chart, and hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
What stuck: Surprisingly, there was no tour to support the album. “Ten Long Years” was later included on B.B.’s Ultimate Collection, and the title track made The Complete Clapton.
Reptile – 2001
This one could have been called Laid Back, had he not already used that title. There are a couple of originals here, but the standouts are the covers: Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It,” James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light.”
Critical Response: As polite as the album, with Rolling Stone giving it three and a half stars, saying, “Clapton hits his stride about half the time” on the record. Entertainment Weekly was much less polite, giving it a C, saying, “At heart, Reptile is yet another version of the tepid corporate rock records Clapton’s been making ever since 1974’s best-selling 461 Ocean Boulevard.” Ouch!
Sales: Not great by Clapton’s standards, only going gold for sales over 500,000 and peaking at No. 5 on the album chart.
What stuck: Not much: None of these songs were included on the Complete Clapton best-of.
John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers – 70th Birthday Concert – 2003
Not a Clapton album, but it saw E.C. performing with Mayall for the first time in nearly four decades. If you don’t have 1966’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, get it now. Anyway, up until this point, Clapton had never been one for reunions. Because of his seemingly indestructible popularity, he didn’t need to return to his old bands. Playing with Mayall clearly wasn’t for the cash, and it seemed that Clapton enjoyed the experience. It also seemed to open him up to the possibility of revisiting some of his other old glories, which he would do in subsequent years. The album didn’t make a big critical or commercial impact, but it’s certainly worth checking out (it also features another Bluesbreakers alumni, future Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor).
Me And Mr. Johnson – 2004
Arguably, Clapton is at his most inspired when he’s covering blues legend Robert Johnson, and this album is all covers by the man. Although he had recorded a blues album in the ’90s (From The Cradle) this is the album his blues fans had been dying for, and it didn’t disappoint.
Critical Response: Predictably, this one got a lot of love. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, while Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, saying, “Clapton sounds reinvigorated in these 14 songs by crossroads soul-salesman Robert Johnson, with phlegm in his throat and (relative) fire in his belly.”
Sales: This one also went gold for sales in excess of 500,000, not bad for a straight-up blues album.
What Stuck: Clapton’s most famous Johnson cover will (rightfully so) always be “Crossroads,” but “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” made the Complete Clapton best-of. And he was clearly inspired: He followed the album up less than a year later with a companion piece of Robert Johnson covers, Sessions For Robert J. Both albums have some of Clapton’s best performances of the decade.
Cream – Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005 – 2005
The announcement that Cream was getting together was truly a shock. The famously explosive band barely held it together for three years (1966 – 1968) and hadn’t played together since, save a brief set a their 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The four concerts they did were collected for this live album. They played three nights at Madison Square Garden later in 2005, and that was that: they haven’t worked together since. (And by the way, if you haven’t checked out the documentary on Cream’s Ginger Baker, Beware Of Mr. Baker, do so: you’ll thank us).
Back Home – 2005
After the excitement of a Cream reunion, a new solo record could only disappoint. There’s really nothing wrong with Back Home, it just doesn’t have too much that sticks. It’s Clapton in his relaxed bluesy mode. Per the title, he’s enjoying the comforts of home. After all the well-documented relationship drama in his life (see: “Layla”), who could begrudge him enjoying a solid relationship? And after the horrific loss of his son (see: “Tears In Heaven”), you’d be pretty churlish to complain about hearing about him doting on his daughters. And, after getting in the Ginger Baker/Jack Bruce crossfire at the Cream reunions one more time, wouldn’t you want to hire employees for your next record?
Critical Response: Polite! Rolling Stone gave it three stars, saying “if you’re looking for Slowhand to ignite the pyrotechnics, forget it. He’s busy out in the backyard, playing with the girls.”
Sales: It hit No. 13 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and has been certified gold for sales in excess of 500,000.
What Stuck: “Revolution” had a cool reggae vibe, and his cover of the then-recently departed George Harrison’s “Love Comes To Everyone” was sweet. Also, former bandmate Steve Winwood guested on the album, and those two had some unfinished business: the former Blind Faith band mates would soon team up for a tour as a duo.
JJ Cale & Eric Clapton – The Road To Escondido – 2006
The only surprising thing about this union is that it took so long for the duo to get together. Two of Clapton’s biggest solo hits – “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” – are J.J. Cale covers, and Clapton clearly is influenced by Cale’s laid-back guitar-driven songs.
Critical Reaction: Again, polite. Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, saying “the two mellow fellows uncover new levels of laid-backness on a set of largely J.J.-penned tunes.”
Sales: It hit No. 23 on the Billboard 200 album chart and was certified gold for sales in excess of 500,000.
What Stuck: Coming out when it did, “When This War Is Over” was poignant. “Ride The River” was included on the Complete Clapton collection. It’s worth noting that Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks – who was allegedly named after Clapton’s former band Derek & The Dominoes, which featured the late Duane Allman – guested on the album, sparking a bond between the two that continued when Trucks joined Clapton’s band for a tour.
Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood – Live From Madison Square Garden – 2009
Having revisited John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers via Mayall’s 70th birthday concert, Cream via a reunion, and Derek & The Dominoes via a tour playing music from the era and featuring a band member named after the band, Clapton was now ready to revisit his post-Cream pre-Derek band, Blind Faith. A full reunion would be impossible – bassist Ric Grech died in 1990, and Clapton probably had his fill of Ginger Baker at the Cream concerts. So, Clapton and Steve Winwood teamed up for a tour as a duo, focusing on Blind Faith (as well as their solo material, Derek & The Dominoes, Traffic and some Hendrix covers). Both artists had been criticized for being too laid back for years, but they pushed each other to great heights on this live album.
Clapton – 2010
By now, he had made peace with all of his former bands (while he never addressed The Yardbirds, he did tour with fellow ex-Yardbird Jeff Beck), and had written his memoirs. So: time for another laid back album! This one saw him diving a bit deeper into New Orleans jazz than he had in the past. Most of the songs were covers, with Clapton co-writing just one song. He said of the album in his record label bio, “This album wasn’t what it was intended to be at all. It’s actually better than it was meant to be because, in a way, I just let it happen.”
Critical Reaction: Rolling Stone gave it four stars, saying the album “is all over the place in repertoire yet devoutly grounded in its roaming.” Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, gave it a C, saying, “Guess even God needs a nap once in a while.”
Sales: It hit No. 6 on the Billboard 200 album chart, but has not yet been certified gold.
What Stuck: “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” has made his setlists, and Clapton’s co-write “Run Back To Your Side” probably would have been a hit in the late ’80s or early ’90s.
Clapton had an unprecedented run of making classic music – with The Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominoes and a solo artist – that lasted from the ’60s through the early ’90s. He also went through a lot of hell in that time. The devil may no longer be on his tail, and if his music reflects that, who are we to bitch about it? He’s got plenty of great music in his past. But don’t count him out: He’s still one of the greatest guitarists walking the earth (and underrated as a singer, to boot). He’s earned his happiness.