Clapton and Winwood Mystify in Classic Rock Journey

clapIt is not very often that two rock and roll veterans who once played together in a super group reunite decades later to perform a series of concerts. However, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, two of classic rocks iconic figures, have documented this rock dream, teaming on Clapton and Winwood Live from Madison Square Garden, which was recorded in late February 2008, producing one of the most enjoyable live concert albums of all-time.

Clapton, who has earned the monikers “God” and “Slowhand” at various stages of his guitar playing life, has had a prolific and monumental career. His initial lead guitar role was as a member of the Yardbirds, the first rave-up group. The band, which served as a virtual guitar factory having had Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as members, had a commercial hit with “For Your Love” in 1965. This led to Clapton’s departure because he was a blues purist and did not like the direction the band was taking. He soon joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers afterwards, where his blues-based playing had a platform to shine. After a short stint with the Bluesbreakers ( less than a year) he left to form Cream with Jack Bruce (a former bass player with the Bluesbreakers, Graham Bond Organization and Manfred Mann ) and drummer extraordinaire Ginger Baker (also a former member of the Graham Bond Organization).

This teaming, though extremely contentious due to dissension between Bruce and Baker, nonetheless produced the first super group and featured extended jams and mind-blowing improvisation on the part of these three incredible players. After tremendous acrimony between the members, Cream dissolved despite their musical brilliance. After some jam sessions with Winwood, Clapton  and he decided to form Blind Faith, (1969) with Ric Grech (formerly in the progressive group “Family”) and Cream drummer Ginger Baker, which didn’t last very long, but was nonetheless a brilliant collaboration. Clapton later formed Derek and the Dominoes and gave us “Layla and Assorted Love Songs,” which featured the brilliant slide guitar playing of the late, great Duane Allman. Through the succeeding years Clapton has had  quite a successful solo career ( “I Shot the Sheriff,” Wonderful Tonight,” “Forever Man” and “Tears in Heaven” to name a few) and been commonly acknowledged as a guitar god.

Winwood played keyboards and sang at age 15 in the Spencer Davis Group in the late sixties with his older brother Muff. Despite some incredible early success (“Gimme Some Lovin” and “I’m a Man”) he too had some creative differences with the rest of the band and wanted them to go in a more free form jazz-rock direction. This led to him leaving them and forming Traffic, one of the most underrated bands in rock history. His collaboration with Chris Wood, Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi allowed Winwood to broaden his horizons, incorporating jazz in a rock setting on such brilliant tracks as “Glad,” “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” His vibrant vocals, keyboard work on both acoustic piano and organ and guitar playing with the band broke new ground in album-oriented rock. In 1969, he joined forces with the aforementioned Clapton to form “Blind Faith” and produce an excellent debut album. He later had a successful solo career with brilliant albums like “Arc of a Diver” with the stellar track “When You See a Chance” and later hits “Back in the High Life” and “Higher Love” with James Taylor and Chaka Kahn on background vocals respectively.

After this whirlwind tour of  these two classic rock legends’ past accomplishments, it is a breath of fresh air to have a new release from them that pays homage to the past, but still manages to seem fresh. Clapton, 64 and Winwood, 61, shine on this recording and have both aged like fine wine. Clapton plays like a man possessed, who has just made a deal with the devil at the crossroads a-la his guitar idol Robert Johnson. His fluid and melodic guitar lines and scorching solos on Hendrix classics “Little Wing” and Voodoo Chile,” both complement the songs and add to them.

Winwood’s voice has matured and its timbre reminds a listener of Ray Charles, especially on his poignant rendering of “Georgia,” the Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorell timeless masterpiece. Though he can’t reach some of the notes from his earlier days, his refined voice is soulful and expressive His lead and background vocals, including excellent harmonizing with Clapton are powerful and evocative. The Hammond B-3 organ he employs is a wonderful addition to many tracks on the CD, as well as his stellar guitar work.

A particularly impressive part of this 21 track double CD are the selection of songs. It includes most of the “Blind Faith” album.“Had to Cry Today” has an incredibly tasteful Clapton solo, which includes breathtaking trills. “Presence of the Lord,” a Clapton penned opus, has the two superstars trading verses. The bridge of the song, with a raw sounding Clapton solo, is as good as or better than the original album track. “Well All Right,” a Buddy Holly original on the Blind Faith debut, has wonderful synthesizer work and a great guitar introduction, while “Can’t Find my Way Home” features Winwood’s vocals out front without much embellishment and gives a listener chills and takes him/her back to 1969 in a heartbeat.

The CD also features four Traffic standbys. “Glad,” is a jazz-rock instrumental tour-de-force that features a blistering Clapton solo is worth the price of the CD. “Pearly Queen”, a forgotten Traffic nugget from the album of the same name, has wonderful guitar-keyboard give and take. Two tracks off the “Mr. Fantasy” album ( 967) are the classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” with expert acoustic piano work and the only weak song on the CD, “ No Face, No Name, No Number.”

Clapton’s roots are in the blues and that genre is not ignored on this combined effort. “Sleeping in The Ground” is a blues track sung by Winwood (which is also available on the deluxe edition of the Blind Faith album). Clapton himself gets to shine on Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble,” the ultimate man down on his luck song. The slow, heart wrenching Clapton guitar solos truly convey the songwriter’s intent, which is to make us feel sorry for a poor soul (“Hard for me to keep decent clothes”) and his gritty, lived in vocals are blues personified. “Rambling on My Mind” is a Robert Johnson track that demonstrates what a brilliant guitarist Clapton is, as he takes us to the Mississippi Delta with his acoustic guitar work.

It would make Johnson, the architect of the blues, proud and happy of his disciple.

Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes rocker “Tell the Truth” is given a breath of fresh air with the addition of Winwood’s backing vocals, while his successful solo career is addressed with “After Midnight”  and “Cocaine,” two J.J. Cale tunes that Clapton made his own. Winwood highlights a solo track of his,“Split Decision” that was co-written by Eagle member Joe Walsh and an interesting choice in Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” which is given royal treatment with the help of an unbilled horn section and “Lowdown,” a shuffle number, which is not listed on the inside booklet.

The sensational pairing on “Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood Live from Madison Square Garden” is aided by an excellent ensemble which includes Willie Weeks on bass, Chris Stainton on keyboards and Ian Thomas on drums. They are true professionals who fill out the sound, but do not dominate, which allows for Clapton and Winwood to shine brightly.

It is refreshing to pick up a CD that reunites two grizzled veterans of the greatest period in rock history and be pleasantly surprised. It is a dream for a classic rock aficionado. “Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood Live from Madison Square Garden” is a fantastic live CD with excellent sound (it sounds more like a studio release than a live effort) that reaffirms these musical giants’ reputations with excellent vocals, brilliantly executed, and extended guitar solos and melodic and hard-hitting keyboard artistry. The old tracks sound new again and previously uncovered songs are a godsend for Clapton and Winwood followers.

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Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.

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Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.

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