Thursday, November 29, 2007

Richard Clapton Live



Richard Clapton
Country Club Resort,
Launceston, 2006



It’s a sit down show. “I just called to say I love you” is sprinkled from the ceiling tannoy like numbing confetti. Patrons at the door joke about Englebert Humperdinck making an appearance. But club schmaltz and mid-life ironies do not negate an excitement in the room. For two hundred people, a full house, something important is about to go down.

Richard Clapton walks on stage, backed by a young acoustic guitarist called Danny Spencer. The singer is wearing the same impenetrable penny-eyed sunglasses he seems to have had on his face for four decades. Black t-shirt, jeans, barrel-chested, bit of a belly, but almost like his old self.

“Janie see how good the sky looks today…” and he’s off, singing ‘Blue Bay Blues’, his classic ode to Byron Bay and a hippie love affair that floats on sunny air. Now, as then, it has the echo of time passing to it, a feeling temporary and beautiful at once. Time has enlarged this sweet-sad feeling, especially for those who first heard the song back in 1975 - and no doubt for Clapton too. Oh god, I feel like I might cry as he sings it. What is this feeling about? Reliving the past? Or is the past still alive in me now? The song tastes like salt, it’s that strong and most everyone here seems swept away.

By the time Clapton and Spencer are doing ‘Get Back to the Shelter’ something great is occurring. It’s to do with Clapton’s songs, the way he was our most articulate poet of Australian coastal life throughout the 1970s. He’s bringing it back to life, making the present dissolve and an era appear.

Then things begin to change. The rest of Clapton’s group joins him for ‘Capricorn Dancer’, and the Spencer’s acoustic nuances are forsaken for a less spacious sound. Clapton’s self effacing personality, his between song jests with the boys in the band, the mock jive poses and vocal affectations - burbling scats, off mike shouts - all take on an accumulated weight. After a while it feels as if Clapton is lost somewhere just outside of his own songs; that his moments of greatness are a mystery he can’t get back to except in glimpses.

The band comes alive for a new song called ‘Liberty Bell’, dedicated to “evil King John Howard”. Clapton is generous with the young players behind him, letting them loose, but from the title itself to the generalised working man lyrics and the steady chug of the melody, a faceless American FM rock competence is mostly what you get. An older song like ‘Ace of Hearts’ and the more recent ‘Diamond Mine’ show what a naturally wonderful voice Clapton has for soul funk – for the deep notes and cat-like cries that once used to see him match it with the likes of Renee Geyer on stage. But they also reveal what a dead end this has been for his talents an Australian balladeer, for sustaining a voice rooted in a sense of time and place he could call his own.

‘Deep Water’ and ‘Down in the Lucky Country’ seem to return an authority to the performance, but the playing is rushed and heavy handed. More critically Clapton himself undercuts things through an inability to keep faith with the high drama of the songs as they were originally expressed. It’s as if we’ve been banished to perusing some musical photo-album of how we used to be with Clapton, laughing at the way we danced, what we wore, what we believed in and did.

‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ restores the show to something truly special just when it all seems lost, accentuating a riff of sadness throughout the room and Clapton’s own divided performance as he calls and cries “don’t waste time, these are the best years of our lives, oh don’t waste time…” We all sing along in a hush-a-bye way.

The show ends after what feels like a strangely perfunctory one hour set, before Clapton returns for ‘Girls on the Avenue’ and ‘Goodbye Tiger’, both delivered with the same contrary blend of immersion and inability to give what’s ultimately required. He takes the latter song out on a devotional vocal spiral that invokes the prayerful intensities of Van Morrison - but Clapton never goes all the way, descending into scat mimicry rather than ecstasy, muttering something about life being “as mean as shit” and blessing us with a wish to “take good care of ourselves.”

A few slugs straight from a bottle of vodka during these final songs is less like the act of a rock ‘n’ roll wild man than someone drinking a cup of tea - the difference, you feel, between abandonment and resignation. Of course it’s no surprise Clapton finds it so hard to enter the mystery of his greatest songs some thirty years on - and yet their greatness still shines in spite of him, and sometimes because of him too. You can’t help but want him try harder, to believe in who he was. To not waste this time.


- Mark Mordue

* Performance took place some time in 2006. Review never published. Above image of Clapton from a Festival Records photo shoot in 1973.
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