"Clapton is God!" used to be the battle cry and general feeling of rock lovers in the '60s, referring to his work with Cream. Clapton has since become somewhat less than God, and has finally devolved into merely a fine journeyman guitar player. He did, however, during the 1970s, release a few very good albums while he was stumbling his way back from a serious drug problem. '461 Ocean Boulevard' was the first of these "comeback" solo albums. I remember the day this album was released, and I remember being terribly, um...under-impressed. Now, to my mind, Clapton has never bettered, or equaled, his work with Cream...but, one does what one can...
It's well documented that Clapton actually despised his work with Cream, much preferring to stick to his muse of the early blues legends (Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, etc...). Perhaps this was a major reason for his extreme drug use - unhappiness. Well, ol' Eric decided to clean himself up and go back to the music he truly loved...and thus was born '461 Ocean Boulevard' (an actual address of an actual house in Miami Beach where he decided to overcome his demons).
Excellently produced by the late, now legendary Tom Dowd, '461...' was Clapton's re-entry into reality and his love of pure blues. Here he covers some classics ("Motherless Children", "Willie and the Hand Jive"), some soon to be classics (Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff") and at least one original tune sure to become a classic ("Let It Grow"), as well as Elmore James' "I Can't Hold Out", Robert Johnson's "Steady Rollin' Man", and, among the three bonus tracks, Jimmy Reed's "Ain't That Lovin' You' and Willie Dixon's "Meet Me (Down at the Bottom)". Clapton was to leave no doubt where his heart lie. And, I must say, as much as I love(d) Cream, '461...' is a very good blues album...so very much better than the watered down, half-hearted attempts he's lately been foisting upon the generic public's love for, well...just that.
The surround speakers are used mostly to open up the sound - slight bleeds, mostly - no particular placement of instruments. "Motherless Children" starts out with a smokin' electric blues figure and a ridin'-the-rails backbeat. The fire is still there, and it smokes. Nice envelopment - clean and clear and crisp and open, with a mighty fine electric slide guitar. "Give Me Strength" lets loose lap steel slide and Hammond B-3. When Clapton sings "Dear Lord, give me strength to carry on...", you believe he means it. "I Shot the Sheriff" is a fine example of open, ensemble playing.
"I Can't Hold Out" catches a groove with over-driven guitar and Hammond B-3 and is one of the unheralded standouts on the disc. "Let It Grow" is one of those perfect songs - harmony and lap steel flow from one plateau to the next. Excellent use of the surround speakers.
Most noticeable throughout '461 Ocean Boulevard' is the excellent ensemble playing. Very few smokin' guitar leads take off into the ozone. The use of surround sound here is very good - allowing the album to kick it up a notch - becoming very personal to the listener from a very personal artist's attempt to regain footing in his love of music. Most certainly this disc has never sounded better, nor revealed the humanity within. Eric Clapton certainly made a come back with this album...in many, many ways. Get it! Got it? Good.