Live In San Diego (with Special Guest J.J. Cale)
He’d be wise – with the recent retirement news – to leave this as his final offering. For it never really got better for EC than this. I saw one of the shows on this same tour and, having seen him previously at another good time in his career (c. 1990) this was definitely an incredible line-up. No bullshit, there were three guitarists on stage and Clapton could have considered himself lucky to win the bronze. Doyle Bramhall in loyal support was doing a lot of the heavy lifting and Derek Trucks – the virtuoso slide layer – was not only an incredible voice on the guitar but seemed to be dialling in other instruments via his sound; a saxophone, a set of keys, the sitar, a vocal. All of it mesmerising.
The setlist too – a heavy chunk of the Layla album (his best effort? Again due to others doing a lot of the lifting too) and hints that the blues was something more than just clever marketing in his later years.
Recorded nearly a decade ago this live show gets the nod now as part of the retirement plan, obviously. And there’s a special mini-set featuring J.J. Cale. Clapton dined out on Cale for years. And then when his own star was fading, and Cale was finally getting the kudos for a career of great songs and a mindset that shunned the spotlight Clapton decided it was time to actually truly acknowledge him. Self-serving of course, but at least that little worried grumble of Cale’s guitar was still and always in fine form. And it shows what Clapton was trying to do in the mid-late 70s but perhaps the hangover of his late 60s adulation was too hard to shake.
The nearly 20-minute Little Queen of Spades is a big ask, because Clapton’s such a vamper but on most of the long workouts we get to enjoy this phenomenal band (Willie Weeks was on bass – R.I.P). The saccharine Wonderful Tonight feels out of place, but he had to give his crowds something like this – and better this one than Tears in Heaven right? Also it’s a ripping version of Layla, one of his very best. Crossroads too, gnarled and angry. Some actual spit and fire.
It’s almost too smooth of him going out on this – it covers two decades of utter bullshit from the studio and repetitive, safe live gigs. But hey, as a lapsed fan I welcomed this one and I remember that show I saw well. It was so much better than I was expecting. And so is this. Not a slam-dunk but at least he’s suited and booted and trying.