Eric Clapton: I Still Do

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Eric Clapton
I Still Do
(Bushbranch/Surfdog)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The combination of producer Glyn Johns and Eric Clapton yielded one of the guitarist’s most admired, commercially successful and classic albums in 1977’s Slowhand. It also bore the next year’s mediocre Backless, not considered a highlight in Clapton’s bulging catalog. The duo reconnects for the first time in almost 40 years for I Still Do, which may be the most attention-grabbing aspect of it.

Clapton has morphed into his final chapter with grace and class albeit with a fair amount of predictability too. This release won’t change that, which doesn’t mean it’s bad or even disappointing. Rather, I Still Do reflects what fans that have stuck with him through his five decade run pretty much expect: a batch of singer-songwriter covers — the most notable from Bob Dylan (“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”) and two from JJ Cale – some Delta blues (this time from longtime influence Robert Johnson with “Stones in My Passway,” one of the songs he didn’t already cover on 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson), Leroy Carr and Skip James, a few new tunes including the surprisingly non bluesy, bossa nova-styled “Catch the Blues” and American songbook standards (a closing, perhaps prescient “I’ll Be Seeing You”), all played with low key but never — well, seldom — snoozy comfort.

It’s safe to say that old Slowhand won’t be sending shivers down most listeners’ spines with electrifying solos as in the past, but neither does he sound uninspired or lackluster. At this late stage, that’s commendable, especially when he lays into a slow, swampy groove on “Spiral,” one of the few new originals, where he sings “I’ll just be playing my song/ hoping to get along.” Johns’ production isn’t raw, but he does keep his hands off too much overdubbing, rendering these performances, with five (!) credited keyboardists, a subtle but noticeable live feel.

Clapton remains most convincing on the blues selections he has typically connected with best. The opening “Alabama Woman Blues,” James’ “Cypress Grove” and the Johnson track elicit the album’s most gripping emotion and help lighten the disappointment of the sweet, some may say saccharine, ballad “I Will Be There,” that features the cryptic Angelo Mysterioso (one time pseudonym for George Harrison) on duet vocals.   

The singer/guitarist and occasional songwriter could spend the rest of his years touring his hits, but instead, he continues to release professional, perfectly listenable, occasionally spirited if ultimately unchallenging albums like this. There is enough talent, subdued enthusiasm and commitment on I Still Do to justify most fans’ money and attention, with the understanding the fire and intensity of the Slowhand days only appear intermittently. At this point, that’s as much as we can expect.