Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Derek and the Dominos [extended]

  • On Tour [Atco, 1970] A-
  • Layla [Atco, 1970] A+
  • Eric Clapton [Polydor, 1970] B
  • History of Eric Clapton [Atco, 1972] B
  • Derek and the Dominos in Concert [Polydor, 1973] A-
  • Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert [RSO, 1973] C-
  • 461 Ocean Boulevard [RSO, 1974] A
  • There's One in Every Crowd [RSO, 1975] C+
  • E.C. Was Here [RSO, 1975] B-
  • No Reason to Cry [RSO, 1976] B-
  • Slowhand [RSO, 1977] C+
  • Backless [RSO, 1979] B-
  • Just One Night [RSO, 1980] B+
  • Money and Cigarettes [Duck/Warner Bros., 1983] B+
  • Behind the Sun [Duck, 1985] C-
  • Journeyman [Duck/Reprise, 1989] B-
  • The Layla Sessions [Polydor, 1990] B-
  • 24 Nights [Reprise, 1991] Neither
  • Unplugged [Reprise, 1992] B-
  • From the Cradle [Reprise, 1994] **
  • Pilgrim [Reprise, 1998] C+
  • Riding With the King [Reprise, 2000] ***
  • Me and Mr. Johnson [Reprise, 2004] Dud
  • Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center [Reprise Jazz, 2011] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Delaney & Bonnie & Friends With Eric Clapton: On Tour [Atco, 1970]
Delaney & Bonnie are what would happen to rock and roll if it were capable of growing up--maybe they're what would happen to this country if it were capable of growing up. Whites so down-home their soul inflections sound inbred, they sing of love like teens of yore, but even though their love is quite physical it's been weathered spiritually and morally. No wonder Eric Clapton found their youthful fun and mature equanimity an antidote to the formless pretensions of Cream and Blind Faith. He certainly contributes--whenever the voices don't quite carry the one-take live performances, there he is with a terse, punchy solo that adds just the right note of strength and understanding. Nice that he's got Dave Mason (and Delaney himself) to help out. And nice that they all pay their respects to Robert Johnson and Little Richard. A-

Layla [Atco, 1970]
What looks at first like a slapdash studio double is in fact Eric Clapton's most carefully conceived recording. Not only did he hire Duane Allman for overdubs after basic tracks were done, but he insisted that Duane come up with just the thick, sliding phrase he (Eric) wanted before calling it a take. The resulting counterpoint is the true expression of Clapton's genius, which has always been synthetic rather than innovative, steeped in blues anti-utopianism. With Carl Radle and Jim Gordon at bottom, this album has plenty of relaxed shuffle and simple rock and roll, and Clapton's singing is generally warm rather than hot. But his meaning is realized at those searing peaks when a pained sense of limits--why does love have to be so sad, I got the bell-bottom blues, Lay-la--is posed against the good times in an explosive compression of form. A+

Eric Clapton: Eric Clapton [Polydor, 1970]
One great r&b instrumental ("Slunky"), two tracks that deserve classic status ("After Midnight" and "Let It Rain"), two that don't ("Bottle of Red Wine" and "Blues Power"), and well-played filler. I blame a conceptual error, rather than Clapton's uncertain singing, for the overall thinness. As a sideman, Clapton slipped into producer Delaney Bramlett's downhome bliss as easily as he did into Cream's blues dreamscape, but as a solo artist he can't simulate Delaney's optimism. I mean, a party song called "Blues Power" from a man with a hellhound on his trail? B

Eric Clapton: History of Eric Clapton [Atco, 1972]
A number of worthwhile oddities on this stopgap pseudo-document: the uptempo, high-echo, Spector-produced single of "Tell the Truth," a studio jam on the same tune, and King Curtis's "Teasin'," featuring God on novelty guitar. Also some less worthwhile oddities, a lot of Cream and Delaney & Bonnie, and not enough showpieces from the Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers days (those are on other labels, which means they cost money). Yet it's gone top ten. Must be a lot of collectors out there. Or maybe just people who believe in God. B

Derek and the Dominos in Concert [Polydor, 1973]
In a way, the absence of Duane Allman from this set is a blessing. Instead of striving fruitlessly to match the high-tension interweave of the studio versions, D&D function as the Eric Clapton Band, rolling easy the way they learned to with Delaney & Bonnie. Clapton's vocals are rough and winning, and he gets to deliver his warm, clear, rapid runs of notes and slurs, well, how to say it--in concert rather than in competition (with Duane, with Jack and Ginger, with himself). Even "Bottle of Red Wine" and "Blues Power" make sense on-stage. Warning: the drum solo is on side two. A-

Eric Clapton: Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert [RSO, 1973]
Featuring organizer Pete Townshend, affable Ronnie Wood, former bandmate Steve Winwood of Traffic, Jim Capaldi of Traffic, Rebop of Traffic, and how could I forget Jimmy Karstein? Also featuring six soggy songs that have been crisp in the past. C-

Eric Clapton: 461 Ocean Boulevard [RSO, 1974]
By opening the first side with "Motherless Children" and closing it with "I Shot the Sheriff," Clapton puts the rural repose of his laid-back-with-Leon music into a context of deprivation and conflict, adding bite to soft-spoken professions of need and faith that might otherwise smell faintly of the most rural of laid-back commodities, bullshit. And his honesty has its reward: better sex. The casual assurance you can hear now in his singing goes with the hip-twitching syncopation he brings to Robert Johnson's "Steady Rolling Man" and Elmore James's "I Can't Hold Out," and though the covers are what make this record memorable it's on "Get Ready," written and sung with Yvonne Elliman, that his voice takes on a mellow, seductive intimacy he's never come close to before. A

Eric Clapton: There's One in Every Crowd [RSO, 1975]
This is the J.J. Cale record we were afraid Eric was going to make (ho-hum) when he signed up those Leon Russell sidemen (yawn) for 461 Ocean Boulevard. Only for J.J. (think I'll turn in) the nice tunes come naturally. C+

Eric Clapton: E.C. Was Here [RSO, 1975]
From Clapton a live album is welcome these days. At the very least it guarantees that his head was higher than his feet at time of recording, and live albums being what they are it also assures plenty of what he does best, which is play guitar. But though Clapton's choked lyricism can be exciting, he does have trouble breaking loose, and because George Terry's sound is so like his own their colloquies don't spark much. Besides, this is basically a blues album--four of the six cuts fit the category with varying degrees of authenticity--and I expect a blues album to be sung as well as played. B-

Eric Clapton: No Reason to Cry [RSO, 1976]
A well-made, rather likable rock and roll LP that shows more pride and joy than the standard El Lay studio product, probably because the characters here assembled don't do this kind of thing all that much. The words are trite but the singing is eloquent and the instrumental signature an almost irresistible pleasure. But what does it all mean? B-

Eric Clapton: Slowhand [RSO, 1977]
As MOR singles go, "Lay Down Sally" is a relief--at least it has some soul. But the album leaves the juiciest solos to George Terry, and where four years ago Eric was turning into a singer--in the manner of Pete Townshend--now he sounds like he's blown his voice. Doing what, I wonder. C+

Eric Clapton: Backless [RSO, 1979]
Whatever Eric isn't anymore--guitar genius, secret auteur, humanitarian, God--he's certainly king of the Tulsa sound, and here he contributes three new sleepy-time classics. All are listed on the cover sticker and none were written by Bob Dylan. One more and this would be creditable. B-

Eric Clapton: Just One Night [RSO, 1980]
Who needs another live double? A master guitarist whose studio albums have been cited for unfair trade practices by Sominex, that's who. All your AM and FM faves plus, served hot, raw, or both. B+

Eric Clapton: Money and Cigarettes [Duck/Warner Bros., 1983]
The groove is as inspired as this crack band of blues 'n' boogie pros can make it--when Cooder, Lee, Dunn & Hawkins play their hearts out, mere professionalism (also mere boogie) gets left behind, and Clapton's guitar hasn't rung so crisp and clear since Layla. The drawback is that the music is the message, everything Clapton boasts he ("still") has "left to say" on "Ain't Going Down," his only notable new song. If blues power were my idea of God, I might feel a transcendent presence even so. But blues power in itself isn't even my idea of a foxhole. B+

Eric Clapton: Behind the Sun [Duck, 1985]
Eric was never the nonsinger he was wont to declare himself in retiring moments, but his vocal gift only made sense when laidback was commercial. On this album he isn't retiring--he's looking for work. So he resorts to none other than Phil Collins, once his Brit-rock opposite but now just a fellow "survivor" (and how). For several reasons, including market fashion, Collins mixes the drums very high. This induces Eric to, um, project in accordance with market fashion. Sad. And also bad. C-

Eric Clapton: Journeyman [Duck/Reprise, 1989]
What did you expect him to call it--Hack? Layla and 461 Ocean Boulevard were clearly flukes: he has no record-making knack. So he farms out the songs, sings them competently enough, and marks them with his guitar. Which sounds kind of like Mark Knopfler's. B-

The Layla Sessions [Polydor, 1990]
Sloughing off the myth of the album as artistic unit and denying proven spendthrifts a face-saving shred of consumerly discrimination, CD boxes are invariably about marketing rather than music. But this triple smells. Supposedly necessitated by the slovenliness of Layla's first digital remix, still for sale as a "special-price" double-CD even though the same material squeezes onto one disc here, it pretends that Eric Clapton's finest pickup band--which as the notes inadvertently remind us begat George Harrison's endless All Things Must Pass (you remember "Apple Jam," now don't you?)--deserves the kind of genius treatment that's dubious even with great jazz improvisors. And since it unearths not much Duane Allman (no surprise, since he barely met the band), it cheats on the dueling-guitars fireworks that made Layla explode. This is pop, gang--arrangements matter. Outtakes are outtakes because the keepers are better. Jams take too long to get anywhere worth going. And when a mix trades raunch for definition, the exchange is usually moot. B-

Eric Clapton: 24 Nights [Reprise, 1991] Neither

Eric Clapton: Unplugged [Reprise, 1992]
Laid-back doesn't equal dead--461 Ocean Boulevard is laid-back. What's wrong with this stopgap is it means to be inoffensive. Relegating Clapton-the-electric-guitarist to the mists of memory and capturing Clapton-the-pop-vocalist in a staid mood only an adrenaline junkie could confuse with the sly somnolence of "I Shot the Sherriff" and "Willie and the Hand Jive," it turns "Layla" into a whispery greeting card. No wonder the pop star he most closely resembles on television is James Galway. B-

Eric Clapton: From the Cradle [Reprise, 1994]
cf. Son Seals, Otis Rush: plays better, sings worse ("Motherless Child," "Blues Before Sunrise") **

Eric Clapton: Pilgrim [Reprise, 1998]
Actually, Lord, there's been a misunderstanding. Remember when we said it was OK for You to sing? What we meant was . . . well, first we just wanted You to get rid of Jack Bruce. Then it was more like, Don't be shy, Sonny Boy Williamson didn't have that much range either. But never, never, never did we say, You have the right if George Benson does. Or, You could be the next Phil Collins. Or, Guitars are for sound effects anyway. Really, God. That wasn't the idea at all. C+

B.B. King/Eric Clapton: Riding With the King [Reprise, 2000]
Tireless teacher spurs genius student ("Riding With the King," "Hold On I'm Coming"). ***

Eric Clapton: Me and Mr. Johnson [Reprise, 2004] Dud

Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton: Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center [Reprise Jazz, 2011]
This isn't just figureheads rising to the occasion or getting back to where they once belonged, although both models pertain--especially for Marsalis, who enjoys the blues enough that his monster chops masticate them lip-smackingly rather than chewing them up and spitting them out. What's decisive, however, is a conception in which the members of a blues horn section interact polyphonically rather than uniting in the soulful Texas manner while blues polymath Clapton dictates as well as plays and sings a repertoire that includes Memphis Minnie and Howlin Wolf as well as W.C. Handy and Johnny Dodd. The juxtaposition may discomfit at first--we're not used to blues so jaunty and effervescent. But let it and it'll lift you right up. A-