Once, long ago, Eric Clapton was such a bloody good guitar player that British kids called him God and his jealous friends dubbed him Slow Hands. Nowadays Clapton is played on easy listening stations, and he’s closing his live album with a rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
The new One More Car, One More Rider, a collection of songs from 2001 concerts in Los Angeles and Japan, is difficult to compare to Clapton’s great live album, the 1973 Derek and the Dominos Live at the Fillmore. While his early 1970s stuff was psychedelic rock at its absolute best, his new album’s covers of those songs are bland and unemotional, while his newer material is mellow soft rock. Not that that’s necessarily bad: this is still, after all, still God (albeit a much, much older one).
Maybe the only similarity between the live albums is that they’ll both get bad reviews from the way-too-hip, indie-music mecca Pitchfork.com, which calls Clapton’s solo on “Let It Rain” from that first live album the worst guitar solo ever performed. And while it’s certainly not that terrible, it is 16 minutes long — Clapton was on so much heroin at the time that he couldn’t stand up, let alone keep track of the time.
In any case Pitchfork doesn’t have to worry about Clapton anymore: well off heroin, he is a new man. His solos, for example, are now as short as his fans would allow from a guitar god. His band now features a saxophone and synthesizer player, as if it could add something to the magic of Cream’s guitar, bass and drums. On top of everything else, his new live album has Clapton following a rendition of the once magnificent “Bell Bottom Blues” with “Change the World,” a song from a movie about Scientologist John Travolta magically healing people. Indeed, Clapton must be a new man. And to prove it he has somehow middle-Americanized “Bell Bottom Blues” (not to mention “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight”), playing the classic rock gems without the emotion that made them so famous. And that’s not to say these now-mediocre songs are terrible; if they hadn’t been masterpieces once, they might be considered fine little ditties with good-enough jams stapled to the ends.
But the blandness of the new record shouldn’t be surprising: Clapton’s solo albums have gotten softer and softer with the age of his career and the guitarist himself. And the ultra-success of the white-bread, middle-aged blues of his MTV Unplugged album certainly didn’t help. But even his oldest stuff — with Cream and Blind Faith — has now been neutered. It’s hard to distinguish which ones were once classics: the piano riff at the end of “Layla” now sounds like the opening theme for a sitcom.
Although the double-album’s best songs are bland, “One More Car” does still feature Clapton on lead guitar. Just as Unplugged was middle-of-the-road and yet still remarkable, the live music here is uninspiring though fun. But unlike Tom Waits or David Bowie, Clapton’s getting more mature while his music isn’t. It’s a pity, too, because his older stuff — like Cream’s gritty Disraeli Gears or Derek and the Dominos’ transcendently great studio release, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs — are bonafide classics. This new live-album wouldn’t be so upsetting if it didn’t ruin songs from those great records; that and the “Over the Rainbow” ending. Really, God.