Live at Montreux 1986 presents a 41-year-old Eric Clapton from June of that year. His band was halfway through a two-year association together at this point. Bassist Nathan East and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes were session musicians who first worked with Clapton on 1985’s Behind The Sun before joining the supporting tour. They repeated the pattern for August, which had yet to be released at the time of the concert’s performance. Drummer Phil Collins rounded out the quartet and also served as the producer of the two albums. He was a bigger music star than Clapton at the time due to his successful solo career and that month’s release of Genesis’ most commercially successful album Invisible Touch, yet you wouldn’t know it by how humbly he served his role.
This date was the third on Clapton’s world tour and the second night in a row on this stage as he played the night before with Otis Rush; a CD/DVD of that performance was released earlier this year. Clapton’s touring bands of the early ‘80s had included a second guitar and female vocalists, but now he fronted a streamlined quartet of talented musicians,
The show opens with Clapton walking out on stage alone. He begins playing “Crossroads” and is accompanied by the audience clapping. Collins is greeted to a raucous cheer as the rest of the band makes their way out. Clapton continues the Cream songbook with a version of “White Room” that features a slightly restrained guitar until he unleashes a wicked solo. Phillinganes sings Jack Bruce’s part.
Clapton switches gears on Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff”, offering an extended solo that is very sweet and melodic. He must be having a great time because he’s beaming. During this song, I notice the camerawork is adequate, but I would have liked better close-ups on his fingers.
The set list then delves into new material for six songs. Clapton tells us that “I Wanna Make Love To You” is going to be on the new album, but that turned out to be incorrect as the track wasn’t released until 1988's Crossroads box set. The song is the weakest one of the night. It’s too pop for Clapton and the lyrics are very repetitive. You can definitely hear Collins' influence, and the keyboards are very 1980s.
Actually, the keyboards are the biggest problem with the disc. They standout harshly due to how tinny they are and they don’t fit in with Clapton’s sound at all, coming across like something out of a hotel lounge. Whenever they come to the forefront of a song, it’s terrible, equally bad on new material, “Same Old Blues”, and old, “Sunshine of Your Love”. It’s hard to believe they used something that sounded so artificial, and if it weren’t for Clapton’s talent, the songs would be unlistenable.
August becomes the focal point of the set. “Miss You” is a blues with a driving beat that makes you forget the previous song. “Tearing Us Apart” is a rocker that sounds so good that you almost forget Tina Turner’s vocals from the studio version. “Holy Mother” is a gospel blues inspired by the then recent death of The Band’s keyboardist Richard Manuel. The lyrics and signing are a tad bland, but Clapton shows his gift to be guitar playing when he cuts loose on a beautiful solo that says more than his words ever could.
A 15-minute medley moves from “Behind the Mask”, featuring Phillinganes center stage on lead vocals, to Cream’s “Badge” to “Let It Rain” from his debut solo album. Clapton shows that the music trumps all. He is very comfortable stepping out of the spotlight and moving to the side of the stage during “Behind the Mask” and when Collins gets a moment to shine on his smash hit “In The Air Tonight”. The drumming is very powerful, much stronger than studio version, and it gets one of the biggest audience responses of the night. Clapton appears content creating great guitar flourishes during the song’s atmospheric opening, standing with his back to the audience for most of it.
But the viewer won’t forget whose show it is as Clapton concludes with some classics. On “Cocaine” he tears it up on guitar and the audience loves it, as their boisterous celebration at its conclusion leaves no doubt. The band infuses “Layla” with more pep than its studio version. The keyboards sound more natural, but soon go off the rails again on “Sunshine Of Your Love”. The night concludes with “Further On Up The Road” where they let it all hang out.
Fans of Clapton will certainly want to check out Live at Montreux 1986. He delivers some brilliant solos, but the poor keyboards temper my enthusiasm and recommendation. I would strongly suggest listening to samples before purchasing. Audio options are PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS Digital Surround Sound.