Listening to Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood…..

Some readers may perhaps find it a little strange that it has taken me until the closing months of 2012 to arrive at a considered view of Messrs Clapton & Winwood’s spasmodic series of reunion gigs and product ‘opportunities’  which, after all,  have been going on for about 5 years now. 

On the other hand, that’s probably somewhat to the point; back in the day I would have been on the case at once – after all,  these two were major deities in the pantheon of rock gods who strutted their fitful hour upon the stage,  then (we assumed)  disappeared to Hawaii or Malibu or Woodstock to ‘hang out’ with other rock stars and loads of beautiful girls, take loads of drugs and (eventually) put together another album’s-worth of songs that tugged at the social fabric and suggested that the younger generation were more fitting custodians of contemporary society than their elders.

Ugly work, but someone had to do it……nowadays, though, the low spark of high-heeled boys is just a distant glimmer of what it used to be and nobody says much any more about fighting in the streets or changing the world.  The torch has passed to another generation and when The Who sing about everyone f-f-f-fading away at the end of the Olympics, you sense that they might even be singing about their own g-g-g-g-generation.  It seems that even pill-popping mods from the mid-60’s have become commodified and the anger that drove Pete Townshend’s original lyric has just dissolved into grumpiness, cynicism and empty spectacle.  No wonder I feel able to approach Winwood and Clapton at a more leisurely pace .  They’re not quite Stadtler & Waldorf yet, but it’s definitely more about relaxation than revolution these days.

Winwood & Clapton on stage in 2011

Seen through that kind of lens, Steve & Eric are nowadays really just a couple of ageing geezers whose voices won’t quite make those high notes anymore and whose recent solo records hardly sell at all compared to the glory days of the 1970’s.    And they are far from being alone; every major city in the UK has bands composed of ex-members of this or that or the other band who used to be a big deal and who now get together once in a while in the function rooms of suburban pubs to run through a few of the old favourites  – in this town, it’s generally ex-members of bands like The Move or the Steve Gibbons Band (or both) who are involved in this kind of thing and if you’re  a fan, it’s no doubt a slightly nostalgic night out.

This is really what Steve and Eric are doing, but such is their residual clout in the minds of fans, promoters and journalists that they’re able to stage their bouts of nostalgia to packed houses in huge venues across three continents and record companies will still produce DVD’s and double CD’s of it all.  It’s a measure of the stature they once had and an increasingly rare event as most of the heavy hitters from that era  -for example, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin – are unlikely – for one reason or another – to tour again in any major way,  leaving only the possibility of a last hurrah from The Rolling Stones to turn back the clocks to when these dinosaurs really did roam the Earth and draw a line under the whole Rock & Roll epoch. 

In some respects, Eric Clapton has in any case been backtracking through his career highlights since well before the Millennium rolled around.  There have been excursions with B B King and J J Cale  ( and if  A.A. Milne or  e.e. cummings were still alive….)   and studio projects based around Robert Johnson’s slim songbook.  There have been onstage reunions with Cream and with John Mayall – and of course with Winwood, leaving The Yardbirds about the only rolling stone Eric hasn’t revisited.

Winwood has been slower to accept the role of a living museum piece and through the 1990’s pressed ahead with a series of albums of original material which largely failed to match the illustrious standards of what had gone before.  There was one last hurrah with a reformed version of Traffic who released a reasonable final album (‘Far from Home’) , toured extensively in the USA, supporting bands like the Grateful Dead  and played their final gig (though none of us present realised it) at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in September of 1994.   

Apart from that and the odd appearance on Jools Holland’s TV show, Winwood seems to have concentrated on promoting his career in North America and his profile in the UK has quietly diminished.  There was the obligatory 4 CD retrospective  in 1995 and even a mildly diverting BBC documentary called ‘English Soul’  which showed a man largely at peace in his Cotswold hideaway where he has taken on the role of occasional church organist and pillar of the local community.  When one of his daughters got married there last year, Charles and Camilla were in attendance and the child of the north Birmingham suburbs seems more than comfortable in his new role as a country squire.

By contrast, Clapton has been a troubled soul for most of his life and even the briefest trawl through his biography inevitably uncovers a catalogue of highs and lows that few can match – and live to tell the tale.  Murky family history, controversial and ill-chosen racist outbursts, high-profile  encounters with fame,  drugs and alcohol and the tragic deaths of those near & dear to him contrast with passionate affairs,  a fiendishly complex love life  and  a ‘jet set’ lifestyle,  lived in the fierce glare of the spotlights. 

Eric with his Granny in 1971

Over the years, we have seen the hair get longer and lanker, then be shaved to a grey stubble, the weight has ballooned to saloon bar habitué proportions then miraculously melted away to leave a gaunt ascetic ,  who sometimes  looks more like an accountant or an opthalmologist  than a seriously talented guitar player.  Because, that is one thing that has remained constant – for all his refuelling problems, his serial affairs and paternity issues, for all the glitzy guest star performances around the world, Eric remains one of the world’s premier blues rock guitarists.  He has outlasted those whose talents and technique exceeded his own as well as those lesser souls who simply aped his style.  He only needs to pick up that guitar and the music takes him; he is lost and ‘in the zone’  and the accumulated detritus of the years just slips away. 

In the end, he is,  like Keith Richards, a survivor and his mild and self-effacing approach  in interviews or, for example,  when cast in the role of Musical Director and M.C. for the 2002 ‘Concert for George’ (Harrison) at the Albert Hall belies the wild excesses he has experienced over the years.

So, if Clapton has caromed erratically off the walls of luxury apartments, rehab rooms and 5-star suites around the world whilst Winwood has slowly ripened in the mellow Gloucestershire sunshine – and I accept, of course, that such a view  represents a colossal over-simplification – then what has brought them together at this juncture?  Is Eric just being comprehensive in his trawl through his list of former colleagues?  There was the feeling with the reuniting Cream that he might just be working off some previous dodgy karma, but Winwood and Clapton even emerged from the Blind Faith debacle on sufficiently good terms that Steve was an active  participant  in  the ‘rehab band’ assembled by Pete Townshend for the ‘Rainbow’ project just a few years later.  These two do go back an awfully long way – to 1966 and Joe Boyd’s ‘Powerhouse’ project at least – and there seems every likelihood that they do actually get on.  Musically, neither of them have strayed far from the blues and R’n’B that initially inspired them, although Winwood has occasionally ventured a little further afield, stylistically speaking,  in his session work with the likes of Jade Warrior and Talk Talk.

Strangely it seems to have been a peculiar brand of English political conservatism that may have triggered their most recent collaboration.  Winwood’s status as part of the Cotswold ‘squirearchy’ would probably have made it almost mandatory for him to espouse the views of the Countryside Alliance, whilst Clapton’s involvement may have been triggered by his friendship with former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters.  Clapton played a gig with Waters at Highclere Castle in Berkshire in 2006 to raise money for the Alliance – who were, at the time, fighting the Labour government’s attempt to ban foxhunting.  His involvement was reported thus: “Clapton’s spokesperson confirmed “Eric supports the Countryside Alliance. He doesn’t hunt himself, but does enjoy rural pursuits such as fishing and shooting.  He supports the Alliance’s pursuit to scrap the ban on the basis that he doesn’t agree with the state’s interference with people’s private pursuits.” (www.contactmusic.com).

Steve Winwood in his Squire outfit.

Given their mutual enthusiasm for the preservation of rural barbarism and the rights of the individual, a reunion was perhaps inevitable and it duly happened back at Highclere in May 2007 for another Countryside Alliance fundraiser where Winwood and his band (introduced by another Alliance apologist, the  nauseating Jeremy Clarkson) were joined on stage by Eric Clapton for the latter half of their set.   Winwood subsequently guested  at the Clapton-curated tri-annual ‘Crossroads’ Festival in the USA, after which  Clapton played on Winwood’s ‘Nine Lives’ album and some New York dates were booked into Madison Square Garden for early 2008.  Beyond any shadow of a doubt,  we were now entering the realms of a full-on reunion, but whilst it might have looked like Blind Faith Mk. 2, that was never going to happen,as Winwood made clear in a BBC interview from later in 2008  –  “The idea of reforming Blind Faith arose fairly early on but it was decided that it wasn’t going to be that, because we didn’t want to limit it to that material. We wanted to touch on our own material.”

And, in a way, the interest this project holds for me lies in the songs that Steve & Eric have chosen for the setlists on this tour.  It would have been easy to churn out a predictable 90-minute set of Blind Faith, Traffic and Cream covers, but what I will confess that I do like about this project is the interesting choices the two of them made in selecting their repertoire.  Whilst there was a degree of inevitability about the appearance of over-familiar pot boilers like ‘Pearly Queen’ and the sickly ‘Wonderful Tonight’, there are also some genuinely left-field choices, particularly from Winwood’s side of the garden fence.  I would never have believed that we would ever see him performing songs like ‘No face, no name & no number’ or ‘Midland Maniac’  on stage again. 

Even Eric’s selection is not altogether predictable, with less familiar songs like ‘Tell the Truth’ and ‘Double Trouble’ given a run out, usually to good effect and the version of ‘Layla’ played at the Royal Albert Hall follows the revised arrangement that we first heard on Clapton’s ‘Unplugged‘ album.  In terms of cover versions, many observers have commented on the inclusion of no less than 3 songs connected with Jimi Hendrix and the fact that on most nights, the band’s set would climax with a 15 minute plus version of ‘Voodoo Chile’  – Winwood of course played and sang on the original version back in 1968.  Perhaps they both felt that history hasn’t been that kind to Hendrix and that songs like ‘Little Wing’ were due another airing.  Taking on ‘Voodoo Chile’  is another matter; this is one of those ‘holy grail’ tracks for Hendrix fans, but to be fair to our boys, they carry it off with considerable élan.   

Naturally, it doesn’t always work; a truncated version of Traffic’s ‘Glad’ sticks out like a sore thumb and songs like ‘Presence of the Lord’ haven’t worn particularly well.   On the whole though, the ‘everyday’ titles and the occasional variations would have kept Steve, Eric  and their cast of accomplices – including ex-Grease Band stalwart, Chris Stainton and bassist Willie Weeks who played on the 1976 ‘Steve Winwood’ album  – on their toes.  As mentioned any problems with high notes were glossed over by the  vocal talents of  Sharon White and Michelle John.  There seems to be a welcome absence of windy or sententious  pronouncements from the stage,  with Clapton handling the MC role for most of the gigs I have heard and, overall, it seems to work just fine.  There is nothing earth-shattering here; just a run through of 20 or so blues-based tunes with some accomplished playing from both the principals.  I’ve only seen fragments of the Madison Square Garden video but both Clapton & Winwood seem to be enjoying themselves and the mood is one of relaxed joviality for the most part.

Clapton & Winwood in Blind Faith days; somehow it seemed more important back then……

The music these two have made over the years – both together and apart – has often produced some high-water marks in my collection ; the original ‘Layla’ album, the ‘John Barleycorn must die’ album,  and numerous individual songs –  the original Spencer Davis Group version of ‘Gimme some lovin’, Cream’s ‘Sittin’ on top of the world’ , Traffic’s ‘No face, no name and no number’ and ‘The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys’, Blind Faith’s ‘Can’t find my way home’, Clapton’s 1975 version of ‘The Sky is Crying’  – and so on.  None of what Clapton & Winwood have produced via this reunion comes anywhere near these high-spots, but that’s OK.  This stuff can be enjoyed for its own sake and whilst  the politics are pretty dubious these days,  the playing is solid enough and the songs remain (pretty much) the same.

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