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Eric Clapton: Planes Trains and Eric

Doug Collette By

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Eric Clapton
Planes Trainsand Eric
Eagle Vision
2014

Planes Trains and Eric represents a great concept brought to fruition. To follow Eric Clapton on tour and glean insight into the experience(s) on and off the stage is illuminating by definition, especially insofar that this man, the archetypal guitar hero, has the advantage of long-term perspective both wide and deep on the phenomenon of touring in a band. And in a brief interview segment, the main subject of the disc gives the lie to the careerist bent of his history, the likes of which it might be argued has bordered on mismanagement, since he returned from his self-imposed hiatus with 461 Ocean Blvd (RSO, 1974). Clapton sounds like the seasoned road warrior and savvy musician he is, at his best, when talks of eschewing corporate one-offs for the sake of roadwork that generates collective momentum for him and his band.

Which is exactly what's on display in live performances presented in their entirety, interspersed with footage of Clapton and his band speaking of experiences, as they rehearse, travel sight-see and kill time between gigs, all from this Far East leg of their 2014 tour. Fortunately, the primary theme of this film is the music and how the bandleader prepares, along with such veterans of studio and stage as drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Nathan East. In terms of selecting the material and arranging it for the ensemble, the sturdiness of the rhythm section comes to the fore immediately in "Pretending" as it immediately follows segments featuring the three as the bedrock of the band in both theory and practice.

With just a single guitar in the hands of Slowhand himself, the comparatively compact lineup of the group includes two vocalists-Michelle John and Shar White, both complementing Clapton's voice and adding a gospel element,plus,(perhaps in a nod to the instrumental setup of The Band whom Clapton has long revered) ex-Ace member Paul Carrack on Hammond organ and vocals along with perennial road warrior once in the late Joe Cocker's Grease Band Chris Stainton on multiple keyboards. The latter two impart an earthy element that balances the polish of the rhythm section that's readily apparent in the barrelhouse arrangement of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads."

The sense of history within that song itself, originally a staple of Cream's repertoire, it's become one of a number of songs so closely associated with Eric Clapton it might well be termed his signature song , f it weren't for the fact others such as the title song of his master work "Layla" and the late J. J . Cale's "Cocaine," hold a similar position. But then it's a measure of this man's artistic cache he retains such abiding identification with so many tunes and, perhaps not so surprisingly, the passion and simplicity of his playing at its best cuts a swath through the blend of sound accompanying him.

Courageous as it is for the man to front the band as such, even given his hallowed stature, it's even more brave, and, again, telling of his willingness to challenge himself more than in the past, that he regularly plays an acoustic set. Reworking blues like "Drifting" makes perfect sense in that context as such tunes are at the very root of Clapton's musical sensibilities, but doesn't lessen the imagination at work as his finely-etched fingerwork finds a complement in the soulful sounds of Carrack's B3. The appearance of similarly-sourced songs, including Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" and Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Koochie Man" reaffirm Slowhand's loyalty to his primary influences.

As does, to a lesser extent, the inclusion of bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," even apart from the commercial breakthrough the reggae icon's song supplied four decades ago. An early proponent of the Jamaican music, EC's seen fit to expand upon the deceptive intricacy of the song with a more extended improvisational take on the tune than many selections here. The plush clarity of the audio on the DVD (the expert work of Bob Clearmountain) matches its visual counterpart, as does the logic of camera work as it moves around the stage to capture the individual contributions of Gadd and East, plus the female singers, during this particular performance.

Notwithstanding the theme of friendship(s) that permeates this title, with repeated mention of retirement from road when he hits seventy years old, Planes Trains and Eric begs the question of how Clapton might reorient his approach to performance by foregoing large venues like the Budokan in Japan in favor of extended runs in smaller ones such as New York's Beacon Theatre (the Stones did it!). Certainly the logistics of such appearances have challenges, but perhaps no more so than international jaunts, simultaneously presenting the dual advantages of reducing the monotony of travel and allowing the exploration of this rock and roll icon's favorite cities in addition to opening up possibilities for sequels to this title.

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