Picks and Pans Review: Crossroads

updated 06/06/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Eric Clapton

Few rock musicians could shoulder a 73-song retrospective of their work, spread thickly over six albums (four cassettes or CDs). Then again, few rockers have the incandescent talent and multifarious credits of guitarist Eric Clapton. Encompassing 24 years of music, Crossroads contains copious samples of his early contributions to the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, Derek and the Dominos, as well as his own unfairly disparaged later solo work. In its sweep, the package presents a listening experience like rafting down a river from its fountainhead to the ocean. There are even a few stretches of dead water. Cross-roads is certainly not a greatest-hits collection. There are many rarities, alternate takes, previously unreleased tracks and concert recordings. This unusual material accounts for most of the weak moments in the collection, such as Cream's first single, Wrapping Paper, a stuffy music-hall ditty. The opening tracks, a grouping of murky, crude, white-bread blues from the Yardbirds, recorded in 1963, are ponderous. Clapton's trenchant style is still inchoate and his guitar tone both flat and thin, though his playing is bullied by Keith Relf's brazen harmonica on most of these recordings. Clapton does manage one nasty, raspy little solo on Naomi Neville's A Certain Girl. His instrumental mastery is really first evident in 1966 with the Bluesbreakers on his jolting pass through Freddie King and Sonny Thompson's Hideaway. It all but announces that a star has arrived. That same year, on a live recording of Have You Ever Loved a Woman, Clapton played with such passion that they should have had fire extinguishers at London's Flamingo Club that night. He obviously never looked back. Certainly no contemporary guitarist has ever approached Clapton's incendiary feel for standard gutbucket blues. That is apparent on any number of songs here, from The Sky Is Crying to Double Trouble. Not all the pleasures on Crossroads are provided by Clapton. For instance, there is a surprising bluesy authority to Mayall's voice on his 1965 duet with Clapton, Lonely Years. And Ginger Baker's megafluent drumming on the songs from the Cream LPs Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire seems even more extraordinary 20 years later. Crossroads has its faults, among them its unmerited expansive-ness and its paucity of Derek and the Dominos tracks involving guitarist Duane Allman, who in retrospect seems to have helped sharpen Clapton's artistry. You have to be enamored of Clapton, guitar playing and blues-rock in general to make the long march all the way through Crossroads. There's no doubt, though, that by the time you get to the final selection, a 1987 re-recording of J.J. Cale's After Midnight (made for Clapton's beer commercial), you'll be satisfied as well as satiated. (Polygram)

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