In a form in which individual instrumental feats are often self-indulgent and superfluous, Eric Clapton's music remains an anomaly. His greatest guitar playing has been as passionate as Otis Redding's best singing and as articulate as Bob Dylan's best songs. Clapton at his peak is as good as it gets.
His music has always been autobiographical, even when he was working off older approaches rather than creating new ones. His frequent modifications of styles and roles, alternately pushing him into the spotlight and moving him into the background, suggest a fragile, idealistic man, vacillating between hopefulness and disillusionment.
If Derek and the Dominos' In Concert, recorded at the outset of the group's lone American tour three years ago and released only this year, showed Clapton on the upswing, then Rainbow Concert explores the lower reaches of his psyche. The Rainbow performance was his attempt at starting all over again, but done without the exuberance that was the hallmark of the early Domino period (as a back-to-back listening to the two albums illustrates).
Rainbow Concert is a recording of monolithic melancholy. One might suppose that hard rock and despair are antithetical but Clapton, aided by Townshend, Winwood and Wood, as well as an able supporting cast, makes the union viable and compelling. But not fun.
Disregarding a few awkward moments in which the musicians betray their short rehearsal time, the music is rich in its make-up and sad in tone its mood remains exceptionally elusive. Townshend's and Wood's guitars and Winwood's organ surround Clapton in a protective aural capsule. He, in turn, works cautiously, but caution isn't Clapton's way — his art is founded on risk-taking in its absolute form, spontaneity. The kid glove approach may have been necessary: Clapton is occasionally indecisive and confused. But he also cuts loose as much as his setting allows in "Badge," and he's solid, if not inspired, for most of the show.
The material contributes to the pervasive melancholy. The six songs chosen from the evening's longer program are either moody, slow-paced or both. Even "Roll It Over" and "After Midnight" get moderate, deliberate treatments. The album's excitement, such as it is, comes from the layered instrumental textures, the solemn measured movement into climaxes that are majestic if not explosive, and the nuances of Clapton's restrained singing and playing. In these respects, the first and last tracks, "Badge" and Hendrix' "Little Wing," are most impressive.
Rainbow Concert presents some of the best people in rock at their most egoless and supportive. But the crucial question — is Clapton able to come out of isolation and return to his music and to the people who care about it? — remains unanswered.