As a near fatality of the Woodstock Generation’s holy trinity — love, music and drugs — Eric Clapton was more than qualified to sing the blues by 1970. Guitar-god superstardom had left the twenty-five-year-old legend disillusioned and burnt; a smack habit and unrequited love for Patti Boyd, the wife of his best friend, George Harrison, lent a hard dose of real-world suffering. Searching for solace, Clapton expressed his pain in fourteen lengthy testaments to romantic anguish that became Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. With churning Southern R&B-style backing by his band — keyboardist-singer Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon — and invigorated by guest guitarist Duane Allman, the acclaimed king of Anglo-American blues rock capped his reign with this haunted, soulful masterpiece.
Twenty years later, Layla has been refurbished — remixed and finally coaxed onto a single CD — for reissue as a commemorative box set, with two additional CDs of previously unreleased recordings from the sessions. Such crypto-bootleg excavation may be a thrill for rock scholars, but those expecting revelations will be disappointed to discover that there isn’t much more to Layla than initially met the ears. None of the more than two hours of related material notably illuminates the original album.
While Clapton’s fretwork on the five long blues jams is predictably impressive, the age when free-form workouts were considered high rock art has long passed. “Jam III” is mildly edifying as an aural sketch for “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” and “Jam IV,” a funky blow by Clapton, Whitlock and the Allman Brothers Band, is intriguing, but these spontaneous combustions can’t touch the staggering solos on Layla’s “Key to the Highway,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “Little Wing.”
The specific song outtakes from Layla are more intriguing but still offer only a teasing glimpse behind the scenes. The numerous acoustic versions of “Mean Old World” clearly did not merit release, but alternate takes of “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” without Allman, have more pathos than the LP track. A looser, funkier rendition of “It’s Too Late” that omits Whitlock’s vocals is every bit as good as the album’s; two extended “Tell the Truth” instrumentals (one cogent, the other an exploratory shambles) sound monochromatic in the absence of Allman’s wailing slide.
That leaves Layla itself. Changing fashions and the subsequent blandness of Clapton’s career have helped preserve the album’s subtlety, strength and stylistic achievement; although a novice singer and writer at that point, Clapton was pretty much at the top of his form. There are songs that wouldn’t be missed, and Clapton’s dinky guitar tone (accentuated by the remix) is less exciting than the sustained enormousness of his Cream-era sound, but those are small quarrels with a large achievement. Unlike so many of its contemporaries, Layla has aged gracefully, an appealing and dignified example of enduring blues power.