Sunday, May 15, 2011

The 40th anniversary remasters of Layla

The other day on the way to work I listened to the 40th anniversary remaster of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek & the Dominos.
40 years... whew. I was a junior in high school, a nascent guitar player and a stone Clapton fanatic when I first heard this, and I immediately embraced it as an incredible, near-perfect recording in every way - real emotion, exuberant, passionate playing, great songs, the right balance of rawness and polish, and some of the best-sounding guitar parts ever... 
Over the years I have kept coming back to it, and to this day it still always hits me the same way.
At this period of time Eric Clapton was pretty much at the peak of his powers, and ever since his best efforts have never approached even the foothills of the heights he reached on this recording. The stories are legendary - his (at that point) unrequited love for his friend George Harrison's wife, the sympatico meeting between Clapton and Duane Allman - and knowing this history helps inform one's appreciation of the record, but it's really in the music that was put on tape, and the order in which it was presented, that the rubber hits the road. 
In the Dominos (Bobby Whitlock on keys and vocals, Jim Gordon on drums, and Carl Radle on bass), Clapton had a crack rhythm section and, in the case of Whitlock, a songwriting partner and strong vocalist to serve as a foil. And with the addition of Duane Allman, and the generosity with which Clapton featured him in the songs he played on (more than three-quarters of the album), an already delicious musical stew got some wonderful extra spice and complexity. 
Bobby Whitlock, who has recently been very talkative about this album and his time as a Domino (on the heels of his autobiography that came out a year or two back), says that Allman didn't really add all that much to the album, that it would have been just as great an album had he not been present, but I beg to differ. I'm sure it would have been a great album (a listen to the first three tracks, sans Allman, demonstrate that), but Allman's playing in the presence of "God" is inspired, and I suspect Allman's presence tweaked a bit more divine wattage out of Clapton's playing too.
That said, one of my favorite tunes has always been "Keep On Growing," on which Clapton alone plays guitar (as on the first two tracks, "I Looked Away" and "Bell Bottom Blues") -- but a lot of guitar! There are multiple parts piled up here. Several overdubbed rhythm figures drive the song, and cocky fills bristle in between the lines of the verses and choruses. Then, after the last chorus, several guitars improvise joyously in and out and around and through each other. It's the kind of thing that you would expect to quickly dissolve into raucous cacophony and be an over-indulgent mess, but for some reason it's magical.