Eric Clapton, Old Sock. Eric Clapton has a wounded heart, and has since he first started playing guitar professionally over 50 years ago. He has used an intimate relationship with the instrument to help heal that heart through a serpentine life of happiness and tragedy, and the way he's done it leaves him basically unmatched. If just one aspect of this long journey is listened to, it's hard to get the big picture of all Clapton has accomplished. But from an early British Invasion band, the dawning of blues-rock and guitarist-as-God concept, the invention of the power trio, American roots-rock dynasties and, finally, a 40-year solo career where he remains dedicated to chasing the muse, it becomes clear that what the man is really all about is playing music. That's his lifeline, and Old Sock sounds like a Clapton primer, veering from a J.J. Cale chillbumper, a wistful duet of "All of Me" with Paul McCartney and, finally, ending with George and Ira Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay."
About two-thirds through the album, though, Clapton stops time like he can be counted on to do at least once or twice a release. It's on Gary Moore's "Still Got the Blues," and the singer digs deep, looking at past love and realizing it will never be over. It's a loss that will not end, and with Steve Winwood's Hammond B3 organ pushing all the right emotional buttons, Eric Clapton goes to the source. The string section swells, the guitar wails and everything rides into the stratosphere of soul. For that, the man has no equal, really, and it gives hope he will continue to find that passionate place for many years to come. There are very few people who helped create their own genre, and then are able to keep moving forward musically. In some ways, Eric Clapton has completed that circle here, but sounds like he's ready to take off for new territory. He's still on the hunt, and isn't likely to stop until he gets there, somewhere surely over the rainbow and way up around the bend.
Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers. The sacred steel tradition came out of left field when Robert Randolph introduced it to the world at the start of this century. It came out of the Church of God, and as practiced by Randolph and those who came before him was a total assault on the senses through the power of the steel guitar and unrelenting rhythm sections. What churchgoers had known for almost 80 years became a new favorite of rock audiences stage by stage and city by city. All along the trail people marveled at what the steel guitar could do, and how gospel fervor felt so good out on the dance floors of America.
Now Robert Randolph gets to turn the spotlight on other steel players and what a way he does it. Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, Chuck Campbell and Darick Campbell step up for the occasion like rockets ready to launch. And whether they're lighting the fuse to George Harrison and Elmore James classics or turning up the fire on barnburning originals, sacred steel music has never had this kind of exposure. The tempos move from whiplash fast to spirit-tugging slow and it doesn't matter, because this is music meant to travel inside its audience's soul, moving them to a higher plane at the same time the blood rushes throughout the body. Even if it takes a minute to realize where all this energy is aimed—straight up to heaven—half the fun is enjoying the ride while the other half is holding on for dear life. Say amen, somebody, quick.
Alan Wilson, The Blind Owl. If there is a single secret warrior of blues-rock in the 1960s, it is surely Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson. As a vital member of Canned Heat, Wilson's songs "On the Road Again" and "Going Up the Country" became the national voice of the ultimate boogie band. Vocalist Bob "The Bear" Hite might have been the real ringleader of that California crew, but it was Wilson who took it to the limit. He was also a blues scholar, an endlessly fascinating slide guitarist and one of the great harp players of the era.
Yet the whole time his musical attack was sending seismic waves through the counterculture, Wilson himself labored underneath a crippling load of insecurity and depression. He was never able to find a romantic love, and also took it almost personally how humanity was helping destroy the environment. Looking at songs like "My Mistake," "Time Was," "Human Condition," "Do Not Enter" and "London Blues," it's obvious Alan Wilson was in a world of trouble. That high-pitched and almost childish voice conveyed the pain of a man who just could not find his place on Earth, and instead crawled into the blues and basically hid out. While Canned Heat slayed on stages at the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals, Wilson was locked inside himself and could not get out. It didn't stop him from recording music that lives on forever, or helping educate the world about the blues he loved so much. When he died in a sleeping bag in Bob Hite's backyard in Topanga Canyon at the age of 27, he chose to leave this life behind, maybe looking for one that didn't hurt so much. Alan Wilson's blues ran deep, and eventually took him away. These devastating songs stay here forever, thankfully, and heard collected together like this point to a person who might someday get his due. Play on, Blind Owl, play on.