The Return Of Slowhand: Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concerts

It’s the 6th December 1970 and Derek and the Dominos bring their US tour to a close at the Suffolk Community College in Selden, New York. It would be another 8 months before Eric Clapton would take to the stage again for George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh event at Madison Square Garden in New York and in that time the Dominos would come falling down, signalling the end of Clapton’s first musical chapter. It would be another year and a half after the Concert For Bangladesh until he played live again, brought out of a drug fuelled isolation by Pete Townshend of The Who. The result, two comeback concerts on the 13th January 1973 at the Rainbow Theatre in London, England.

Clapton wasn’t in a good state both mentally or physically. He’d spent the previous two and a half years holed up in his Surrey home with cocaine and heroin as companions and as a result his guitar playing had regressed due to the lack of musical contact. Prior to the two shows on the 13th January, Clapton would meet up and rehearse with musical friends who’d come out to support him at this momental occasion. As well as Pete Townshend, the band consisted of fellow Blind Faith members Steve Winwood and Ric Grech, Faces’ (and future Rolling Stone) Ronnie Wood, Jim Capaldi of Traffic, drummer Jimmy Karstein and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah.

January 13th 1973

Early Show:

  1. Layla
  2. Badge
  3. Blues Power
  4. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
  5. Roll It Over
  6. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?
  7. Little Wing
  8. Bottle Of Red Wine
  9. After Midnight
  10. Bell Bottom Blues
  11. Presence Of The Lord
  12. Tell The Truth
  13. Pearly Queen
  14. Let It Rain
  15. Crossroads

The first Rainbow Concert saw Eric armed with Blackie, a guitar that he would use almost constantly until 1985 when it was retired. It was the first time Blackie had been used publicly and what an occasion for it. The band are introduced as Eric Clapton and the Palpitations before launching into Layla, a song Eric recorded with Derek and the Dominos in 1970 and one that has since become a landmark musical recording. Clapton’s guitar playing and vocals start off shaky but that’s not surprising considering the amount of time since he had performed live with anyone. It’s an exciting rendition of a classic song which also includes the magical piano coda, something that hadn’t been performed live before this show. Every time Derek and the Dominos played the song it would be without the coda so it’s inclusion here is a very special moment indeed. Badge, a song recorded for Cream’s 1968 farewell album Goodbye, follows and sadly Clapton’s lack of vocal abilities are laid out for everyone to hear. His singing had changed so much since the Cream days that it was obviously difficult to hit the high notes, at least that’s the impression you get when listening to the recording. That said, Clapton’s solo is exquisite and shows that his abilities are still there, even though letting them shine through was proving difficult.

The band then turn to Blues Power which Clapton recorded for his self-titled debut album in 1970 and played regularly on tour with Derek and the Dominos. You can tell that he’s becoming more confident on vocals as he belts out the wonderful lyrics and sounding in fine form as a result. It’s a great performance which packs a punch and at times you notice what must be Ronnie Wood playing the It’s Only Rock And Roll (And I Like It) guitar riff which 12742399_10153401031668027_3541740663092464316_nis interesting considering that song wouldn’t be recorded until the end of 1973. Whether that’s a coincidence or not is unknown but it’s inclusion adds to the overall magic of the evening. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out comes next and overall it isn’t a great performance, differing greatly from the version on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. Clapton is absent on vocals here and instead Steve Winwood sings the lead. The song starts and you can instantly tell the band are still feeling the track out although to their credit it certainly ends stronger and more confidently. It’s followed by Roll It Over which was the b-side to the original Phil Spector produced Tell The Truth single by Derek and the Dominos which was pulled off the shelves a short time after release. It’s a fantastic rendition that holds up magnificently alongside the original, especially when Clapton launches into a blistering guitar solo drenched with wah.

Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad, arguably one of the finest moment on the Layla album, sounds absolutely fantastic here. At this point in the show Clapton is doing a lot more and certainly singing the way he used to while in Derek and the Dominos, or at least close to that level. Little Wing is definitely different to the version Derek and the Dominos played live on tour, mainly due to the two additional guitarists at this show, but that means it’s more reminiscent of the studio version and that isn’t a bad thing. Steve Winwood supplies backing vocals in place of Bobby Whitlock’s original vocals on the Layla album. I have to note that at this point it may seem that comparisons are being pointed out between this show and Derek and the Dominos but it’s near impossible not to make them, after all that was the last time Clapton had properly played live (not counting the Concert For Bangladesh in 1971). His playing in two and a half years changed drastically and anyone who knows Derek and the Dominos is aware that that band, that period, was Clapton’s prime.

Mark Pettigew (Audience Member)

“We heard about the concert through the Melody Maker and as usual in those days we had to buy tickets in person at a box office – so we took it in turns to travel to London and queue! What I remember about the concert as an event is how high profile it was, with great expectations. Stories had come out via the music press of what a bad shape Clapton was in and how his friends, lead by Townshend, were helping him pull through. There was a very warm atmosphere in the Rainbow. For a scratch band with Clapton in the state he was in, the music was excellent – if a bit rough around the edges – Townshend was holding it together and Ronnie Wood’s slide work, well he was doing what he does so well with Keith Richards!

There was an interval – the second half started half an hour late – lots of speculation – the only change was Clapton now had a Les Paul strapped on, first half was a Strat. The recording smoothes off the rough edges but also removes the “rock” atmosphere, it was louder and more in your face! A great night – there were a lot of heroes on stage. I saw Tony McPhee in the audience and the saddest thing was stepping over Paul Kossoff stoned and incapable on the steps near the gents. He had a couple of girls with him.”

Dave Kitteridge (Audience Member)

“I probably found out about the concert via Melody Maker or Sounds, as I bought both every week. I know I had to phone The Rainbow to find out about tickets which I did from the telephone box over the road – not everybody had phones in their homes in those days!! When I finally got through I was told that it was sold out but they had just arranged to put on a second show at 5.30pm on the same day. To get tickets I had to post a cheque to them and if I was lucky the tickets would be posted to me. I was and they were.

This was going to be the third time I’d seen EC but I’d never been to The Rainbow before and it was the first time I would see the other performers who were going to play. To be honest, I’d never heard of Jimmy Karstein!! I don’t remember much about the concert itself apart from Steve Winwood starting to sing too early in Presence Of The Lord and apologising for it at the end. I was told many years later by a work colleague that he had tickets for the second show and had to wait for ages to get in as they kept finding people from the first show hiding in the building to try and see the second show as well.

The big disappointment was afterwards when the live LP came out it as it just sounded awful, nothing like how I remembered the night. Maybe that’s how it really was and it just sounded so good at the time because EC was back…only, of course, he wasn’t.”

Bottle Of Red Wine is the second song included from Clapton’s 1970 debut album, and what a performance it is. The song bounces along perfectly with the three guitarists in Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Pete Townshend shining brightly in the Rainbow Theatre. Clapton’s first solo at two and a half minutes is excellent but only lasts for a brief minute before another verse comes storming in. The only bad thing is how short the song is because it doesn’t go on for nearly as long as it should. The band then begin playing what is one of the highlights from the first show, the J.J. Cale song After Midnight. With every song that goes by you can sense the confidence growing in Clapton, the confidence returning after a two and a half year absence. It just goes to show how important this night was in his career and how playing in front of a live audience again surrounded by friends and musicians kick started his mojo, so to speak.

One song Derek and the Dominos only played a handful of times in 1970 was Bell Bottom Blues and it follows After Midnight in fantastic fashion. The chorus section in particular is mind-blowing, packing a punch with the large band assembled on stage at the Rainbow Theatre. Focus then shifts to Steve Winwood who sings vocals on the Blind Faith number Presence Of The Lord. Whether it is nerves or just a simple mistake, Winwood comes in a little early and quickly explains by saying “hang on, I’ll be with you in a minute…ok” before continuing where the vocals were meant to come in. It’s a funny little moment which would have been interesting to see on video, although sadly no video footage exists of these two shows. Eric then plays the opening to Tell The Truth before the rest of the band come in which is a fine moment with Winwood singing Bobby Whitlock’s original part from the Layla album. The solo sections on the Derek and the Dominos songs aren’t as extensive as they were when Clapton toured with the Dominos but there are a number of exciting moments here nonetheless with Clapton and Ronnie Wood duelling at one point a few minutes before the band bring the song to a close, with the audience going wild when that point comes.

Two of the final three songs are more familiar territory for music listeners, the first being the Traffic song Pearly Queen. The band sound like they’re having fun here and that’s backed up by how tight they are as a unit. The second to last song is picked once again from Clapton’s 1970 solo album and it’s Let It Rain. When Derek and the Dominos played this particular song live at Fillmore East in 1970 it was touching 20 minutes in length but Clapton and the Palpations manage to get that number down to 7 minutes without altering any of the energy the song contains. The rhythm section of Ric Grech on bass and Jim Capaldi, Jimmy Kerstein and Rebop Kwaku Baah on drums and percussion are a formidable unit, laying down the musical bedrock so Clapton and co. can soar. The final song is the Robert Johnson number Crossroads, a song made famous by Cream. Their rendition at Winterland in San Francisco on the 10th March 1968 is now the definitive version of the song and it’s continually seen as one of the all-time best live performances which is impossible to disagree with. The version played here is exciting in different ways and the perfect song to end the first set with, setting up the audience for the second show, their screams like thunder through the theatre. So far so good.

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