Guitar heroes, before there were guitar heroes: re-issues from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix 

A thoughtful look at Give Me Strength: The ’74/’75 Recordings and Miami Pop Festival

Hendrix and Clapton. Clapton and Hendrix. The undisputed guitar titans of the late 1960s. Before these two, before they introduced an amped-up version of American blues to a global audience, the concept of “guitar hero” did not exist. The stream of reissued material chronicling both artists attests to their undiminished status.

Added to the Clapton canon is Give Me Strength: The ’74/’75 Recordings, a 5-CD collection that documents a transitional period in his mercurial career. Experience Hendrix, the imprint that handles the legend’s prodigious reissue program, brings us the single-CD Miami Pop Festival, which captures The Jimi Hendrix Experience on stage in May 1968.

The two Strat-slingers were not rivals. When Hendrix exploded onto the London scene in 1966 after scuffling for a few years as a chitlin-circuit sideman, the already-established Clapton — white, British and a couple of years younger — quickly deferred. Hendrix, in turn, reciprocated, routinely lauding Clapton.

I became an instant devotee of both, part of a legion: white, American, suburban teens, predominantly male, who had never heard of — let alone heard — the likes of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Elmore James. Experiencing the first ornery chords of “Purple Haze” in May 1967 was one of the most revelatory listening experiences I’ve ever had. Clapton’s guitar solos on Cream’s revved-up version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” stood the hairs on my neck even after the 416th listen.

Maybe it was the nascent critic in me, but I intuited, even as a callow youth, that Hendrix was the more vital and innovative artist. (History has born that out.) His kaleidoscopic dress, his on-stage flamboyance — his blackness — further snared me in his thrall. But Clapton’s Cream, with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/singer Jack Bruce, was the more responsive and elastic jam unit. And while I didn’t keep a log, I probably logged more listening time of Cream back then.

My euphoria didn’t last. Cream split acrimoniously in ’68, after which Clapton did a one-off with the underwhelming super-group Blind Faith, slummed around the States with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends (and got bit by the Americana bug), then in 1970 released the estimable Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs as Derek and the Dominos (recorded in Miami and featuring Duane Allman). After that, addled by heroin addiction, he effectively went into seclusion.

Hendrix died in a London flat on September 18, 1970. Lore says that the day before, Clapton had bought a left-hand Fender Stratocaster he planned to give Hendrix for his 28th birthday in November.

It’s an accepted truth that an untimely death burnishes a rock star’s legacy. We do not witness the diminishment of artistic powers, the recycling of musical tropes, the bad aesthetic decisions, the descent into nostalgia, the onset of gray (or lost) hair and jowls. These are all things we have seen in Clapton. (The last time I attended one of his shows, perhaps a half-decade ago at the-then Ford Amphitheatre, I left mid-set out of sheer boredom.) My hunch is that Hendrix, more restlessly creative, would’ve fared better had he lived.

In 1973, Clapton emerged from a three-year heroin haze, having cast himself in a new light: reluctant guitar hero. His next two studio albums, 461 Ocean Boulevard (’74) and There’s One In Every Crowd (’75) — showcased on the first two discs of Give Me Strength (plus bonus material) — embraced the subtle hodge-podge Americana of the Tulsa Sound. Three of his band mates were from that Oklahoma town.

Twangy licks, simple slide figures and slinky chords characterize the guitar work, and there’s not a blazing solo to be heard. The servile band steadily supports him with relaxed, undulating grooves. You can hear Clapton beginning to cultivate what would end up being a sturdy singing voice, but he has a ways to go.

461 Ocean did pack one powerful surprise: a pedestrian version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” reached No. 1 on the pop singles chart and played a significant role in spreading the word about Marley and reggae overall.

Otherwise, the material is mostly a mixture of muted blues, gospel and R&B, joined by a handful of Clapton originals that show his newfound penchant for writing sappy ballads like “Let it Grow” and “Pretty Blue Eyes.”

As infatuated as he was with his self-effacing sound, Clapton had to remind folks he still knew his way around a Stratocaster. Hence, the live E.C. Was Here — an expanded version, some of it previously unreleased, takes up two of the boxed set’s discs. The program includes a few blues standards (where he actually calls out chord changes to the sidemen), material from 461 Ocean, Layla and (oddly, to me) Blind Faith’s lugubrious “Presence of the Lord” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.” My favorite selection is a ramshackle version of “Badge” from Cream’s Goodbye album.

Clapton and his Okie-esque band deliver performances that are more intense than their studio work, but don’t approach the high-wire intrepidness of Cream. In all, E.C. Was Here underscores that Clapton, without the prodding of Baker and Bruce, is essentially a conservative guitarist, content to reside in the blues-rock box.

Hendrix, on the other hand, was relentless in his quest to mine pure sound and emotion from the blues. That sensibility is put on proud display when he launches into a minute-and-a-half of unhinged improvisatory din before landing on the opening guitar lick of “Hey Joe” to start his set at the Miami Pop Festival.

How does Miami Pop rate amid the vast trove of Hendrix live material? Nicely. Less than a year removed from his transcendent appearance at Monterey Pop, the still-rising rock god is not yet bristling at the confines of his Experience trio — two white British lads: drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding (a converted guitarist with whom Hendrix quickly developed a testy relationship). He remains committed to the songs — mostly culled from his debut Are You Experienced? — and, importantly, to singing them. It wouldn’t be long before Hendrix, on certain gigs, half-assed his way through the lyrics in order to get to the jams.

Miami Pop’s best example of Hendrix’s re-imagining of the blues is “Tax Free.” An exhilarating instrumental set to martial rhythms, it careens through several sections, changing tempos — in all, a head-spinning six-string assault. This is Hendrix embracing orgiastic freedom while maintaining compositional order. That kind of risk-taking remained part and parcel of his live sets until the end.

Critics Ratings: Miami Pop Festival, 4 out of 5 Stars; Give Me Strength: The ’74/’75 Recordings, 3 out of 5 Stars.

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