LIVE: Bobby Whitlock @ The Egg, 6/16/17

Review by Steven Stock

Bobby Whitlock may not be a household name, but the 100-plus discerning music aficionados who turned up at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre last Friday had high expectations, and to judge by the lengthy standing ovation at the end of the show, few of us were disappointed.

Accompanied by his longtime companion CoCo Carmel on acoustic guitar and saxophone, as well as electric guitarist Reuben Chess, Whitlock revisited many of the highlights from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and shared some of the stories behind the songs.

Whitlock was the first white artist signed to Memphis-based Stax Records. After a formative period woodshedding with Sam & Dave and Booker T. & the MG’s, Whitlock moved to Los Angeles in 1968 to join Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. “I was the first to join that band and the last to leave,” he said with a chuckle last Friday night.

A blue-eyed soul ensemble who never quite caught on commercially, Delaney & Bonnie nonetheless garnered the opening slot on Blind Faith’s 1969 summer jaunt through the States. The headliners’ guitarist, one Eric Clapton, was becoming increasingly disillusioned with his own band, and midway through the tour he started joining the Friends onstage and found that he loved both the rootsy elemental appeal of their music and the relative anonymity of playing with a less-heralded group.

Subsequently Clapton used Delaney & Bonnie and Friends as his backing group on his solo debut, Eric Clapton. Many of the Friends left Delaney after a monetary dispute to join Leon Russell and form the core of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Whitlock stayed loyal, but with no work forthcoming, he took the advice of MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper and contacted Clapton, eventually moving into the latter’s Hurtwood Edge estate in Surrey.

1970 was a fruitful year for both Clapton and Whitlock. The pair helped record George Harrison’s triple-album All Things Must Pass, and while Clapton wooed Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, Whitlock took up with her sister Paula. Whitlock recruited his pals bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon to join Clapton in a band that was eventually dubbed Derek & the Dominos.

The quartet moved to Miami and recorded the epochal double-album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs with famed producer Tom Dowd and special guest Duane Allman. Whitlock had a hand in writing seven songs and sang lead on his compositions “Keep on Growing” and “Thorn Tree in the Garden.”

After a drug-fueled tour and a couple of false starts to a second studio record, Clapton pulled the plug on the Dominos in May, 1971, retreating again to Hurtwood Edge and succumbing to heroin addiction. Whitlock recorded four solo LPs from 1972 to 1976 before leaving the music business altogether for 23 years. Since 1999 he’s released seven additional albums and toured occasionally.

Though performed as one continuous set, Friday’s performance featured two different configurations of the trio. The opening salvo of Derek & the Dominos classics found Whitlock and Carmel intertwining acoustic guitars and vocals as only a longtime couple can, while Chess (making his sole appearance on Whitlock’s eleven-date tour, which picks up a different guitarist in each area) played sinuous electric lead lines over their foundation. The trio sounded great, especially on “I Looked Away” and a spellbinding “Thorn Tree in the Garden.”

The back half of the set featured Carmel on saxophone and Whitlock on electric piano, with Chess continuing on electric guitar, and showed that Whitlock and Carmel are still writing credible material. Carmel’s ode to her favorite Glimmer Twin “Keith Richards” was an enjoyable romp, while Whitlock displayed a rare sense of gravitas with his tribute to Carmel’s father “The Captain’s Song,” successfully treading the fine line between sentimentality and schlock.

They returned to Layla for the final two songs, a gorgeous version of “Bell Bottom Blues” followed by a rather ungainly rendition of “Layla,” which shifted from a loping Albert King-inflected blues rhythm to the turbocharged Dominos arrangement and then back again. I didn’t love the arrangement, but I did very much respect the way Whitlock and his cohorts breathed new life into these classic compositions.

Got to Get Better in a Little While
I Looked Away
Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?
Keep on Growing
Thorn Tree in the Garden
Nobody Knows
Keith Richards
The Captain’s Song
Slow Down
Bell Bottom Blues

Pete Mason’s review and Ramon Dario Sanchez’s photographs at NYS Music

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