It is interesting to watch the arc of Eric’s career before that point. He was always a great player but he seemed to have lots of near misses. For every album like Slowhand there was the lesser No Reason to Cry. His fans, me among them, were waiting for that killer album that would blow us all away like Layla did. We had a long time to wait because, even though Layla was recorded under “enhanced” conditions, the drugs soon took their toll on Clapton and for a while he did absolutely nothing. Then came the string of albums in the late 70’s and 80’s, which were quite uneven. He seemed to not want to do what we really wanted him to – play the guitar in a way that made us realize what all the fuss was about.
I find the live album Just One Night to be a good example of where he was during that period. There are great moments on that album but much of the album is spent playing the songs that were OK but not the ones we really really wanted to hear. He’s got some great solos but the whole album just often leaves me cold. For one thing, he seemed intent on using a really thin sound on his guitar, one that didn’t let him take control of the band the way he did back in the 60’s and early 70’s.
Then, in 1989, I remember getting his Journeyman album – the one that, for me shows him getting back to who he really is – and realizing that this was the Clapton that I had been missing all along. The live album that followed that, 24 Nights, was, according to his autobiography, almost a throw-away because of his grief over the loss of his young son. But you can hear that he’s playing better than he has for quite a while and his song choice harks back to songs from Cream and Derek and the Dominoes as well as the great new songs on Journeyman. And to show that it wasn’t a fluke, his Unplugged album, which was released right after 24 Nights, showed him to be a fine acoustic player and highlighted his singing voice. It also featured the song “Tears in Heaven,” which won him the first of his THREE Grammy Awards for pop VOCAL.
Since then he’s released a number of really fine albums including the amazingly personal Pilgrim and what I think is his definitive live album, One More Car, One More Rider. His latest studio solo album was, frankly, the weakest one he’s released in a while, but even that one has great playing on it. I was also really impressed, both times that I’ve seen him this decade, with his professionalism and his fine playing. He’s come through the rock and roll excesses and emerged a winner. If you get the chance to see him now you’ll be seeing one of rock’s premier players and singers at the top of his game.