‘I vaxed the sheriff’: A begrudging review of Eric Clapton’s latest live album

When I first heard Eric Clapton was releasing a set of ‘Anti-Lockdown Anthems’, I had a singular reaction: They’re probably going to be fantastic. It was a realization that I found regrettable, and one that surprised me as much as it might you, but it soon dawned on me that as much as I would like the ardently anti-lockdown, anti-vax guitarist’s album to be as big of a flop as his political views, my initial reaction would most likely be accurate.

I was wrong on one count; while his work with Van Morrison was unsurprisingly great (musically), This Has Gotta Stop came off as wingey, corny, and generally underwritten. But my point still remains: Clapton can go and damn to hell all the lockdowns and vaccines in the world and make himself the most unlikeable angry old man alive, and he’ll still remain a fantastic musician, if not one of the greatest alive.

On hearing he’d released an entire live album, I immediately wanted to put this theory to the test. How corny, conservative, unpopular, and just plain stupid could Clapton act before his skill as a musician begins to falter?

My first two listen-throughs of The Lady in the Balcony: Lockdown Sessions were done in my work kitchen. Laid-back acoustic blues suited momentary breaks in service quite nicely, though the same can’t be said for the breakfast rush — if I have to hear Clapton then, I’d rather it be his work in an earlier supergroup.

Almost every review of this album kicks back and forth between Rock & Roll orthodoxy and political knee-jerk reaction — amidst the two there is no room found to appreciate the comedy of one of the greatest living musicians actively fighting to make their catalogue less and less palatable to an even slightly conscientious listener. Of course, that’s nothing new for Clapton, his past drunken fascistic rambling rivaling even Roger Water’s in The Wall.

“I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism.”

– An actual quote from Clapton at a 1976 concert

The album serves a much similar purpose to his Grammy-winning live album Unplugged. It lets us hear a collection of songs strewn throughout Clapton’s long career across many bands in an intimate, acoustic setting, rather than in a gigantic venue, backed by an extensive lineup of supporting musicians. 

We open with an acoustic rendition of blues standard ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’. The early blues sound of this track establishes the tone the album is going for: retrospective. Clapton has been stewing and riffing on most of these songs  for his entire career, and now we get to enjoy that slow roasted sound.

‘Golden Ring’ was the only particularly unlikable track on the album — I found it sappy and overly-sentimental. A quick recovery is made with ‘Black Magic Woman’, dedicated to Peter Green, original writer of the song for Fleetwood Mac, yet this recording draws much more from Santana’s hit cover of the track.  

‘After Midnight’ takes on a slower, more traditionally bluesy approach to one of the many J. J. Cale covers Clapton has made synonymous with his name. Where fast tempo, flourishes of gospel and a poppy sound demark Clapton’s first recording of the song, this take revels in the reduction of the track to its basics with minimal drums and vocals, accompanied by Chris Stainton on keys. 

Of course, we find the classics ‘Layla’ and ‘Tears In Heaven’ in here, and naturally they’re both fantastic. Both too – as with the rest of the tracks – are very much stripped down and lacking in theatrics or flourish, though Stainton adds an interesting layer to the acoustic version of ‘Layla’ with his keyboard’s pitch wheel. 

“I’m Just a Bad Boy” was a funny lyric to hear a now 76-year-old man sing, but I still enjoyed ‘Bad Boy’ in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. One can’t help but giggle imagining him singing this to himself as he bravely stands up against the tyranny of social distancing and vaccines. 

The album ends with a small run of Muddy Waters covers. ‘Long Distance Call’ and ‘Got My Mojo Working’ bust out the electric guitar for a loud and upbeat finale, which I found much needed after the inevitable sorrow of ‘Tears in Heaven’. 

What’s truly great about this live recording is that the entire session was filmed in high definition, and most of it is available on Youtube for anybody to watch. This makes the album especially educational to musicians of any walk: being able to not just hear what a career guitarist like Clapton is playing, but actually see how he plays it – as well as how he interacts with his band – is one of the many small blessings of this recording.

In a recent review with The Real Music Observer, Clapton resembled not so much a veteran rock and roll superstar, but more so a washed up elderly uncle you’re forced to listen to interject at family gatherings — the content of his rambling not so much politically potent critiques of lockdowns and vaccines as menial and strewn complaints about bad weather and back pains (not kidding). 

It’s a strange thing to realize, but Clapton’s politics, which I first thought would make the album hard to listen to, actually enhanced the listening experience for me. The sheer ignorance and detachment of his views tear through the overwhelming sincerity that would make this album feel boring and unoriginal, instead granting us a fun, ironic, and, at times, even endearing glimpse into a grumpy old man’s fantasy world where he’s still a rebellious rockstar. If it’s not worth a listen, it’s at the very least worth a laugh. 

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