In May 1971, Eric Clapton walked out of the studio where Derek and the Dominos were working on their follow up to the mega-selling Layla album. As Clapton recalled, “By the time of the second album sessions, money and dope and women were getting so far involved… that we couldn’t communicate anymore.” By now a heroin addict, Eric withdrew to his Surrey mansion where for the next twelve months he lived a life of relative seclusion, rarely venturing out except to visit family and friends. It took George Harrison to somehow coax Clapton out of his scallop shell of quiet and into performing at The Concert for Bangladesh held in August that year at New York’s Madison Square Garden, only to see him again return to the safety and privacy of his country manor.
It wasn’t until the end of 1972, that old mate Pete Townsend of The Who revived in Eric an interest in music again, helping him sift through the various tapes made by the now defunct Dominos. It was Townsend who also persuaded him to participate in a concert he was organising on behalf of Lord Harlech, father of Clapton’s then girlfriend, Alice Ormsby-Gore, known as Fanfare for Europe. The band assembled for the event included Steve Winwood, Ronnie Wood, Rick Grech and Jim Capaldi (both of Traffic), and of course Clapton and Townsend. Two shows were announced for London’s Rainbow Theatre on 13th January 1973. Naturally with news of Clapton’s return after such a long hiatus anticipation was high, although Eric himself had serious misgivings as to whether he would be capable of performing at all.
The MC amusingly introduces the group as Eric Clapton and the Palpitations, before things get off to a rousing start with “Layla”, on which Townsend, Wood and Clapton’s guitars create a rich aural tapestry. And despite some comments to the contrary, Eric absolutely shines, despite the brief time spent on rehearsing. On old chestnut “Badge” (although not so old in those days) Eric plays with confidence and conviction, likewise on the next few numbers, “Blues Power”, “Roll It Over”, and the ever popular “Little Wing”, where Clapton’s guitar and vocals literally soar in majestic bereavement for his late friend Hendrix.
“Bottle of Red Wine” and “After Midnight”, from Eric’s solo debut, are given especially spirited workouts, while “Bell Bottom Blues” (Clapton’s ode to his unrequited love for Patti Boyd) and “Key to the Highway”, are particularly impressive, as if Eric was finally finding his feet again by playing the music that always meant the most to him. Steve Winwood offers his vocal services on an emotional “Presence of the Lord” and a cautiously frenetic version of Traffic’s “Pearly Queen”.
Clapton revisits another song off the Layla album with an extremely enjoyable if slightly nervous “Tell the Truth”. Let it be said that while Ronnie Wood is no Duane Allman, the man is no slouch either when comes to slide guitar.
The band breaks out into a jam on “Let It Rain” before concluding with an inspired version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”, often considered as Clapton’s signature song, even though he didn’t actually write it. Everyone lends a hand and the energy is simply superb. Why this wasn’t included on the original LP is inexplicable considering the quality of the performance.
The RSO label was quick to capitalise on Clapton’s return to the stage, by rush releasing an LP consisting of a mere six songs from the concert. However the remixed and expanded CD edition of Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert offers a far more superior representation of both performances, making it the near definitive experience, one that might never have happened were it not for the support and encouragement of Pete Townsend. In the liner notes Eric admits the debt he owes to him: “(Pete) really took a lot of time to help me out, because he thought I was worth it… and I didn’t think I was at that time. He gave me faith in myself.”
So just think, without these concerts, there may never have been a 461 Ocean Boulevard or more importantly maybe no Clapton at all.
As a footnote, there exists a bootleg capturing each show in its entirety, taken directly from the master tapes (one presumes), in pristine sound, and is well worth tracking down. Until the day we see a deluxe re-issue that is.