Live in San Diego with Special Guest J.J. Cale
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Why this extraordinary concert, recorded March, 2007 in the titular city, took nearly a decade to get released is unclear, but that doesn’t diminish its excellence. With plenty of — some might say too many — live albums to his name, including a bulging four disc box and the latest rote and somewhat disappointing 70th birthday event at the Royal Albert Hall, adding yet another seems redundant. It’s not.
This tour found guitarists Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall ll backing Clapton and, more importantly, pushing him out of his comfort zone. Having drummer Steve Jordan, bassist Willie Weeks and longtime keyboardist Chris Stainton along didn’t hurt either. But it’s the material, six tracks resurrected from Layla with Trucks substituting for Duane Allman, that puts this over the top. Sure, we could do without yet another version of the alternately sappy and charming “Wonderful Tonight.” Still, that’s a small price to pay for finally hearing Trucks and Bramhall ll dig into the Layla material such as the seldom performed, funked up “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” urging the sometimes reticent Clapton to some of his most stirring recorded performances.
Oh, and there’s J.J. Cale too.
The famed Okie singer-songwriter — who had just released the impressive Road to Escondido joint album with Clapton — “gate-crashed” the gig for a short but potent 25 minutes worth of five tunes including the inevitable “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” two of Clapton’s biggest hits penned by Cale. Three others from the duo’s then recent disc round out an enthralling mini set that is moving, subtle and emotional, the latter not a description applied to the often business-like Clapton’s stage persona. Professionally shot videos available on YouTube exhibits the smiles on the faces of the four guitarists as the collaboration rolls out, which also begs the question of where the DVD of this is hiding.
The 17 minute slow blues of Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Hearts,” a vehicle for band solos, is another highlight as is a riveting, charged up “Motherless Children.” Robert Cray swings in for a closing vocal on “Crossroads” where his presence adds another voice and guitar. Even “Layla,” a song Clapton has played hundreds of times, sounds unusually inspired and invigorated, especially in its magnificent closing instrumental ballad section, as Trucks takes over Allman’s by-now-classic slide parts.
Since this is a single show, there is an ebb and flow that’s palpable. Between that, the remarkably intense and fluid playing by Clapton with one of his finest bands (it’s doubtful he’ll be working with Trucks who is tied up with his own music anytime soon), and stimulating song choices, this now becomes one of Clapton’s best live recordings in a catalog already stuffed with plenty of terrific choices.