E.C. Was Here, recorded live at various concerts on his most recent world tour, marks Eric Clapton's return to the role of lead guitarist. Not only has Clapton reassumed primary responsibility for the lion's share of the instrumental work, but his fiery guitar playing harkens back to the days when he spearheaded the British blues movement with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Concentrating once more on a blues repertoire, Clapton has come back to the full dense sound of the Gibson guitar, which dominates the instrumental thrust of the band. He has recovered the crisp, fluid sense of phrasing that catapulted him into the vanguard, while maintaining the mature vocal style that has characterized his latest studio efforts.
This is not a traditional live album; it starts at no particular point and ends with a hard-charging version of Bobby Bland's "Farther On up the Road" that doesn't necessarily mark the close of any particular concert, although it does provide an emotional resolution. The essential concern is to provide a comfortable balance between acoustic and electric songs, with the primary emphasis on the kind of "traditional" blues songs which have always provided Clapton with his most effective base for improvisational fireworks.
Appropriately enough, the album starts with a delicately etched blues phrase from Clapton's guitar — the rush of notes that leads into the first verse of "Have You Ever Loved a Woman." In the past, this song has always been one of Clapton's most searing and painful vehicles. This time, he treats it with a good deal more objectivity and distance. In fact, he even chooses to make light of one of the song's key lines: "... And all the time you know, she belongs to your very best friend" by interjecting, "Did I mention any names?"
The numerous guitar breaks are delivered with thoroughly professional smoothness, and although they lack the naked intensity of the version on Clapton's live set with Derek and the Dominos, they make up for it in terms of pacing and fluency. George Terry, Clapton's extremely capable coguitarist, trades off with the master toward the end, creating succinct statements on a Fender Stratocaster.
"Presence of the Lord" begins acoustically, with Clapton and Yvonne Elliman, who has added an extra vocal dimension on recent Clapton albums, singing in tandem with customary soulfulness; then it jumps into the uptempo segment. The marked contrast between the parts of the song is powerfully highlighted but without the total effectiveness of the classically paced wah-wah segue on Blind Faith's original.
But it is with the surging double-barreled finale, Robert Johnson's "Rambling on My Mind" — which introduced Clapton's vocalizing on the classic Bluesbreakers album — and "Farther On up the Road," that Clapton's guitar takes over completely. On "Rambling," his playing is marked by all of the speed, flash and fire of old. In this case, however, all of Clapton's chops are not just a manifestation of prodigious technique. Each phrase is built on a specific melodic construct, sparked by an inner logic and development that has often been missing from the freer, more rambling leads that grew out of the Cream experiment. Dick Sims's ethereal organ playing provides the perfect cushion to balance the guitar pyrotechnics.
"Farther On," driven by Jamie Oldaker's superb shuffle drumming, gives Clapton the opportunity to bring it on home in a burst of glory. Occasionally, in his enthusiasm to really bust out, Clapton pushes a little too hard; some of the phrases jump out of the overall rhythmic flow. But the tone, phrasing and resolutions are generally excellent and even in this speeded up blues context each line is marked by an intelligent sense of pacing. Similarly, on "Drifting Blues," which closes side one, Clapton sings and plays with the authority, looseness and self-confidence of bluesmen twice his age.
For me, as for many other guitar fanatics, the last few years of Eric Clapton's career were a source of quiet desperation. Would he ever really play again? If he didn't push himself out of the blues-playing format, would he inevitably drown in a pool of redundancy? The point is that Clapton has been, is, and probably always will be a blues guitar player. E.C. Was Here, despite a few minor flaws, demonstrates just how far the art of the blues guitar can be developed.