BLIND FAITH: BLIND FAITH (1969)
1) Had To Cry Today; 2) Can't Find My Way Home; 3) Well All Right; 4) Presence Of The Lord; 5) Sea Of Joy; 6) Do What You Like.
In 1968, Cream was one of the greatest rock bands on Planet Earth, and Traffic was, at the very least, one of the hottest new teams on the UK scene, spearheading the back-to-roots movement on the other side of the Atlantic from The Band. By mid-1969, Cream were forever gone, and, as it seemed at the time, so was Traffic (they did pull themselves together, eventually, but at a cost, and it does not concern us here anyway). In their place, for just a few odd months, arose Dairy Truck Fleet, er, I mean, Blind Faith: Eric Clapton on star guitar, Ginger Baker on crushin' percussion, Steve Winwood on gee-whiz keys, and Ric Grech on the case of bass.
Ric Grech, for that matter, did not yet serve the proper time in Traffic — being fresh out of Family, he would only team up with Traffic after Blind Faith had faded away. But that does not screw the general point: Blind Faith, at least the way Clapton originally felt about it, had to be an experiment where the avantgarde and psychedelic side of Cream might be tempered with the soul and «earthiness» of Traffic's folk and jazz roots.
If it did not work, it is not because Blind Faith were unable to make music — their only album proves that they definitely understood their mission and had the knack to realize it — but rather because of an unlucky crossing of complex personalities at a complex time. Clapton, in particular, was going through an identity crisis at the time that did not let him have normal relations with just about anybody, let alone a renegade drummer from Cream; and the renegade drummer from Cream, likewise, was too full of ambition and cockiness to play thoroughly second, third, or fourth fiddle (and it is true that Ginger's presence, despite a graciously allocated drum solo, is less acutely felt on this album than on any preceding Cream release). And we might just as well not get started at all on the drugs issue — particularly vital for at least two of the band members.
In short, it all just fell apart due to «circumstances beyond cultural control», but not before they managed to record and put out this album — retardedly controversial for its album cover (according to the artist, the idea was that of a symbolic representation of «technology in the hands of innocence» or something like that, but, naturally, most of us have to be dirty perverts with a one-street way of thinking). Other than the cover, though, there is no «shock value» whatsoever in Blind Faith: neither Clapton nor Winwood, the two big brains behind the music, ever cared much for epatage.
Considering that the album was «rushed», due in part to restrictive demand from the record label (another reason why the band did not last long), it is actually stunning to realize how much good stuff it contains. It does not have any central theme or concept, and the band did not have enough time to work out a proper musical philosophy of their own (which is not necessarily a bad thing — Led Zeppelin, for instance, did not quite pull their classic image together right from the very start, and this is exactly what explains my soft spot for their first album). But they do give it everything they got, especially Winwood, credited for three songs out of six, with Clapton holding one other credit, Baker another one, and a Buddy Holly cover completing the dish.
As we all know, Steve Winwood started out under the «blue-eyed soul» banner, gifted as he was with a high and easily modulated set of pipes and a knack at figuring out and expanding upon Ray Charles' organ playing tactics, but even so, that part of his image is only one component in the sonic structure of ʽHad To Cry Todayʼ, ʽCan't Find My Way Homeʼ, and ʽSea Of Joyʼ. The former is, first and foremost, a riff-revering blues-rocker — the riff in question is so sharply defined, prominent, and repetitive that it seems as if they were trying to come up with a ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ to call all their own. It is more complex and intricate than the ʽSunshineʼ riff, though, lacking the brutality and menace that made the Cream song a rock radio hyperclassic, and the song's switching between gruffer and friendlier tonalities in the chorus area might also be a little confusing and require a little «getting into» period. Other than that, the song also exists to serve as a guitar battle between Eric and Steve (a trick that was strangely overlooked on their original tour, where Winwood played organ on the song, but recreated almost forty years later when the two reunited for several joint shows).
ʽCan't Find My Way Homeʼ would go on to become a highlight of Clapton's mid-1970s shows (with Yvonne Elliman usually taking on the lead vocals) and was eventually covered by Swans — which means we are definitely not dealing with a sissie sappy ballad here: the gloomy, descending scales of the acoustic guitars and the grim chorus of "I'm wasted and I can't find my way home", express fairly well what some of the band members must have been feeling at the time, and it does it completely naturally and subtly, without any overt displays of desperation. Likewise, ʽSea Of Joyʼ may contain the word «joy» in the title, but most of its music carries a warning / menace rather than anything close to hippie idealism — and the way Stevie's vocals jump up several tones from second to third line of each verse strangely reminds me of George Harrison's manner of singing circa 1970-74: probably just a coincidence, but Blind Faith does share such things as world-weariness, disillusionment, and «inobtrusive moralizing» with George's stuff, even if, to the best of my knowledge, there was nothing going on between Steve Winwood and Pattie Boyd... or was there?
The best known song off the album is, of course, Clapton's ʽPresence Of The Lordʼ, just because it went on to be featured in most of his compilations, and he continues to regularly perform it up to this very day. It is not one of his finest creations, though. The lyrics may be sincere, but they are rather inept (and singing the exact same lengthy verse three times in a row is a bit humiliating, though it was probably conceived as an intentionally repetitive confessional); the music mainly serves as obedient backup to the lyrics; and, worst of all, the fast-and-flashy mid-section with the «thunder-solo» has always seemed somewhat alien to me — stuck in between the slow, contemplative verses, what point does it serve? is it the illustration of a «temper outbreak», as the protagonist falls back into sin and lust, eventually coming back to his senses? or does it illustrate the very «presence of the Lord», who simply decided to take a brief detour and show his (rather Old Testamnental, I'd say) angry face to his new admirer? Or was it just a case of, «hey, there has to be at least one fast Eric Clapton solo on the record, I wonder where we might put it... oh, look, there's three identical verses on this song, this deserves some splitting anyway...»
Still, the song has a point, presents it, defends it, and the fast solo begins and ends with Clapton's first (and quite successful) attempt at a truly funky riff, so we might even be benevolent enough to pardon the man for involuntarily lying through his teeth (quite clearly, by 1969-70, at the height of his Pattie Boyd / heavy drugs problems, he was farther from "I have finally found a way to live, in the presence of the Lord" than any other time in history). Especially since he also found a time, together with Steve and Ric, to take a formerly simple and happy Buddy Holly song (ʽWell All Rightʼ) and transform it into a mix of power pop, pagan folk dance, and psychedelic jamming — probably one of the most bizarre twists on Buddy's legacy, ever.
Most of the hatred toward the record is usually associated with Ginger's ʽDo What You Likeʼ, a brief snippet of a silly moralistic ditty that serves as a platform for solo improvisation — organ, guitar, bass, and, finally, Ginger's own battery array. The song part comes along nicely if you disregard the lyrics (I especially like the combination of "Do what you like / That's what I said / Everybody must be fed" — how come it was so difficult to understand that, if one really does what one likes and nothing else, there can be no guarantee that everybody will be fed?), and the jam part... well, it is easy to say that most of it is there just to fill up space, but, on the other hand, free-form soloing in the vein of one's jazz idols was an important element of progressively-oriented bands those days, was it not? It is quite likely that they would have tried out something like that anyway, even given plenty of time. And, for that matter, Ginger's drum solo here is actually more disciplined, (poly)rhythmic, and in line with the rest of the band members' spotlights than on ʽToadʼ. In fact, I have more problems with Grech's bass solo — he is a good player when supporting the rest of his pals, but as a soloist, he seems to barely go through the motions.
In the end, occasional flaws and errors aside, Blind Faith is a very good record, for a record made under such specific circumstances — even if it did not manage to become quite the perfect synthesis of the «progressive» with the «retro-oriented» that it was supposed to produce. Most of the songs have stood the test of time fairly well (the warm welcome for Clapton and Winwood's 2007-2009 reunion is good proof of that), even if the same cannot be said of the front sleeve. Whether the band had potential for a grandiose future, provided things were to unwind in a different direction, is impossible to say — in any case, had Blind Faith not broken up, we would not have ourselves our Layla, and Duane Allman was, by all means, a better sparring partner for Clapton than Steve Winwood. But who knows?..
Thumbs up, but an additional word of warning: there is an expanded, 2-CD limited edition of Blind Faith out there that is only for completists — it adds a few alternate versions, a generic blues cover (ʽSleeping In The Groundʼ), and an entire disc of studio jams, all of them long, cautiously tedious, and considerately more boring than ʽDo What You Likeʼ: most probably, they just served as early morning work-ups to get into shape before taking care of the real business. There is no point whatsoever for anybody to seek this out, unless you've taken a vow to collect every lick of Eric's committed to tape anywhere in the space/time continuum — just go ahead with the regular version, or, better still, spend the extra money on the recently released footage of Blind Faith's 1969 Hyde Park performance, preserved in fine fashion and featuring, indeed, a young, beardless, and not-yet-thoroughly-wasted Eric Clapton in his prime.
Check "Blind Faith" (MP3) on Amazon