Graded on a Curve:
Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert

Recorded with a one-gig supergroup composed of guitarists Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, and Ronnie Wood, keyboard player and vocalist Steve Winwood, Blind Faith and Traffic bass player Rick Grech, Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi, drummer Jimmy Karsten, and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah in 1973 following a two-year absence from the stage by the album’s namesake, Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert was organized by Townshend to return Slowhand—who was in the throes of heroin addiction at the time—to the public eye.

The show faced difficulties from the start—too many cooks, as they say, spoil the pot, and the sheer weight of the talent on stage gave many of the concert’s songs a ponderous, bloated feel. And given the band’s ad hoc nature, it’s no surprise if the playing is often sloppy. As a result, 1973’s Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert is of more historical interest than an album you’ll want to listen to very often—as is always noted when the subject of the LP comes up, you’ll find better versions of its songs elsewhere, although the LP has its moments.

The original 1973 release—the one I grew up listening to—includes only six songs. The 1995 remastered edition, on the other hand, features fourteen, giving listeners a much fuller idea of the concert. While Clapton wrote or co-wrote only three of the six songs on the original release, the remastered version offers a fuller array of Clapton’s solo material; classic blues such as “Crossroads” and “Key to the Highway”; and (it’s hard to believe they weren’t on the original) such Derek and the Dominos classics as “Layla,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” and “Tell the Truth.”

The show opens (after the band is introduced as Eric Clapton and the Palpitations) with “Layla.” The first half of the song packs a punch (although the vocals of Domino Bobby Whitlock are missed, as they are throughout). Also missed—obviously—is the guitar of Duane Allman. And while Winwood does a presentable job of playing the song’s piano coda, the transcendent loveliness is absent, due to the absence of both Allman and Whitlock.

Cream’s “Badge” is heavy indeed, but lumbers along, although Clapton’s solo redeems it somewhat. On “Blues Power,” which appeared on Clapton’s 1970 eponymous debut, first generation rock and roll meets hard rock, and Clapton’s lengthy guitar solo stings. The song bogs down somewhat past its midpoint, and despite all the singing about keeping on they’d have been better off shutting the thing down earlier.

The Clapton-Whitlock composition “Roll It Over” doesn’t roll me over—rather it drags from the sheer weight of its players, and the playing is sloppy. The band’s cover of “Little Wing” boasts some excellent organ work by Winwood and Clapton plays wonderfully, but it too isn’t tight enough. As for “Bottle of Red Wine,” which Clapton co-wrote with Bonnie Bramlett during his sojourn with Delaney and Bonnie, it hops and jumps and jives and adds a boogie touch to the proceedings. And Clapton plays like a man possessed.

The band’s cover of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight”—a cover of which would also appear on Clapton’s solo debut—is a major disappointment. Cale’s original boasts his patented light touch—the version here has two left feet and drags a ball and chain to boot. The band does a serviceable if somewhat lackluster job with “Bell Bottom Blues,” As with many of the songs from 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, it suffers from the lack of Bobbie Whitlock’s soulful and powerful vocals, which made him the best kept secret of the landmark LP’s brilliance.

“Presence of the Lord,” taken from supergroup Blind Faith’s sole 1969 album, features Clapton’s emotive vocals and not much else; “Tell the Truth” from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs also suffers from the lack of Whitlock, although Clapton puts it all into his vocals and the song has real (if ramshackle) punch. The band’s take on Traffic’s “Pearly Queen” is heavy-handed—Clapton’s simply not the right guy to sing it—and once again the song is held together by duct tape. And Winwood, who you’d expect to play a fronting role in the proceedings, gets lost in the rapid fire guitar and percussion workout that takes up most of the second half of the song.

The cover of blues classic “Key to the Highway” is a bit too laid back for its own good, Clapton’s vocals underwhelm, and it’s up to Ronnie Wood’s slide guitar solo—and the big (but too brief) guitar blow-out of an ending—to add some sizzle to the proceedings. “Let It Rain” also appears on Clapton’s solo debut, and here its stock car tempo is more than welcome, as is Winwood’s organ and Rebop’s percussion. And Clapton’s solo is by far his best on the album, bringing back fond memories of “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad.” Unfortunately the band gives the percussion free reign in a jam towards the end, doing their level best to kill the song’s momentum. Their take on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” is both too loose and heavy-handed. Clapton’s guitar solos (particularly the second one) are worth the price of admission, but there are dozens of superior takes on the song elsewhere, so why look to this one?

It wasn’t until the following year that Clapton beat his heroin addiction and produced the classic 461 Ocean Boulevard, but Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert successfully reminded music fans that Clapton, who’d been inactive for two years, was still alive and kicking. I’m certain the people in the audience were thrilled, and right they were to be. It’s a pity that excitement doesn’t translate to vinyl. It would be a rock and roll legend if it was.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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