Graded on a Curve:
Blind Faith,
Blind Faith

Let me say it right from the start—the only “supergroup” I’ve ever met that deserves the moniker is Derek and the Dominos, with Eric Clapton playing Derek. That said, Blind Faith—the pre-Derek English blues rock conglomerate that featured Clapton as well as Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech—came close with their 1969’s Blind Faith, an excellent but flawed album that opens with some real fireworks only to fizzle out in a spectacularly self-indulgent example of dragged out, drum-solo heavy rock’n’roll bloat.

Short-lived and seemingly doomed from the beginning by Clapton’s ambiguous attitude towards landing himself in the straightjacket of yet another supergroup like Cream, from which he had just escaped, Blind Faith staggered about in the dark just long enough to play one tour and record one album, Blind Faith. Its sound is a sometimes lumbering and sometimes wonderful admixture of the heavy blues played by Cream and the airier, almost jazz-like tones preferred by Winwood’s former and future project, Traffic. And despite the band’s Frankenstein’s monster aspect, I actually find Blind Faith more consistent than I do most Cream and Traffic LPs.

“Had to Cry Today” is a Cream song—complete with barbarically heavy guitar riff and all the rest of the trimmings—with Winwood’s vocals mixed in, and if I prefer it to most Cream tunes it’s because Winwood’s voice is achingly exposed and actually capable of conveying confusion, pain, and loss. Cream always sounded too cold-blooded and purely technically proficient to my ears, and Clapton didn’t come into his own as a vocalist until Derek and the Dominos. “Had to Cry Today” moves jamward but never loses the thread, and is as fine an article of heavy music as any recorded at the end of the sixties. On the other hand, “Well All Right” is looser and has Traffic written all over it; hell, you can actually dance to it without pretending you have a wooden leg, which is the case with most Cream songs. Mr. Baker’s drum spiel—beyond the obligatory and annoying cymbal punching at the beginning—is sublime, and that goes double for Winwood’s keyboard work.

“Sea of Joy” is another faux-Traffic tune, and constitutes groovy mood music at its very best. Winwood throws everything he has into it, holding his notes the way people hold onto ropes suspended above pits of snapping crocodiles in bad horror movies. As for “Can’t Find My Way Home” it’s the LP’s one truly indispensible track, and as starkly haunting a song as any ever written about finding oneself strung out all by one’s lonesome on the opiate tightrope. Clapton’s playing is both delicate and wonderfully nuanced, while Winwood’s vocals are thin and painfully fragile; when he sings, “I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home” you don’t doubt him for a moment. One of the most perfectly atmospheric evocations of slowly descending into the darkness ever written, “Can’t Find My Way Home” could well have been written by Robert Johnson or Hank Williams.

Meanwhile, “Presence of the Lord” is a devout march up the aisle of your local church complete with church lady organ that devolves into a brief but excellent jam, and boasts to what my ears sounds like Clapton’s most inspired playing on the LP (although he gets some nice licks in on “Sea of Joy” and the opening and closing tracks as well).

So far, so good. Ah, but then we come to the 15-plus minutes of “Do What You Like,” as wretched a waste of wax as most of the other extended blooz jams that everybody from the Who to Humble Pie to the Allman Brothers were selling to hapless hippies at the time. The tune shuffles along for a while, then Winwood noodles some on the keyboards pretending to be an anorexic Ray Manzarek while the band chants the title. Then Clapton enters from earphone left on guitar, and for a horrible moment or two I hear what can only be called Santana Bukkake Rock. Honestly, you don’t want this on your face. Clapton shows off for a while in his always tasteful but to my ears overly formal way, with the song maintaining an uneasy balance between the Doors and Santana before the whole thing sinks beneath an interminable bass solo (gadzooks!) by Grech, after which Baker, a brilliant drummer, takes his turn in order to definitively prove that drum solos were the worst thing to happen to rock’n’roll this side of Frankie Avalon. I don’t know what kind of drug you had to be one to sit blissfully through “Do What You Like.” Heavy downers would be my guess. Because if this is the sound of an acid trip, it’s one very bad acid trip indeed.

“Do What You Like” is the nail in Blind Faith’s coffin, and is the only reason the LP isn’t a masterpiece. Blind Faith were notoriously short on material, and supplemented their live shows with plenty of Cream and Traffic songs, and this is readily apparent on the band’s only album. Would it have killed them to surgically excise the excess fat from “Do What You Like” and drum up another tune as good or better than “Sea of Joy” or “Presence of the Lord”?

Apparently it would have, and if I had to guess the reason I’d chalk it up to a combination of heroin and Clapton’s reluctance to throw in his lot with yet another supergroup. If he’d had his druthers he’d have been playing with Delaney and Bonnie, which is just what he did after Blind Faith imploded, despite the enormous success of their sole LP. Blind Faith were, as their name says, a blind and wasted bunch that couldn’t find their way home. So they broke up. A loss? Sure. But they paved the way for Derek and the Dominos, and that’s good enough for me.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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