When Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs turned 50 last year, a box set anniversary reissue materialized. The classic album by Derek & the Dominos (aka Eric Clapton and band, plus Duane Allman) was given its due with state-of-the-art remixes and other assorted love tokens—a 12-by-12-inch book, certificates of authentication, discs full of outtakes (Clapton and Allman action figures sold separately, I guess). This summer Layla enjoys another, more vivid celebration: Layla Revisited, a live concert recording by the formidable Tedeschi Trucks Band, with guests Trey Anastasio and Doyle Bramhall II. It’s a lively and focused performance, as the soulful and high-powered ensemble romp through the full Layla album in original song order, in a single live show (with one small exception recorded in studio).
These releases are all pretty impressive for an album that was initially met with mixed reviews, tepid sales, and some measure of confusion about the artist, this mysterious Derek. The label execs wanted an “Eric Clapton” album, of course, but by then he’d had it with the spotlight. (After a short tour in support of the album, he dissolved the band and withdrew into a long, dark seclusion.) No one knew the Dominos, either, though the band had formed the core of All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s first post-Beatles effort. Harrison’s project came out the same month as Layla and attracted all the attention and praise that Layla missed out on.
A feeling of fate surrounds Layla Revisited. Derek Trucks is named after Clapton after all (or after his pseudonym, anyway), and is the nephew of Butch Trucks, founding drummer of the Allman Brothers Band. Derek quickly emerged as an exceptional guitarist in the Duane Allman mold, and eventually led the Allman Brothers Band in its final decade. He has also shared the stage a number of times with Clapton (they played “Layla” together, naturally). One more simple twist of fate: the stellar singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi–Trucks’ life partner–was born on the very day the original Layla came out. So, yes, there’s a lot to celebrate here, and a lot of history to revisit.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band wears any reverence for that history loosely and lightly, though the history of Layla is not a light one. Death and darkness seemed to shadow it from the start. First, the album featured a cover of “Little Wing,” Clapton’s tribute to a friend and living legend, Jimi Hendrix. But Hendrix died before the album appeared. A year after that tragedy came the death of Duane Allman, at age 24. Allman’s involvement on Layla was short and sweet, almost accidental, but it was also essential to the project; his loss made those Layla contributions seem all the more precious. Finally, there’s the whole business behind the title track. While it was no secret that “Derek” was Eric, it took time for listeners to realize that “Layla” was Pattie—as in Pattie Boyd, then married to George Harrison, Clapton’s best friend. (The “Assorted love songs” part of the album title invites another reading, “sordid love songs.”) All these sorrows and dramas deepened the album’s mystique as it aged, giving it a luster it didn’t have on day one.
For all the guitar hero-ism on these recordings, both Layla and Layla Revisited rely on an especially rocking rhythm section. While the Dominos were a stripped-down unit—Carl Radle on bass, Jim Gordon on drums, Bobby Whitlock on keys—the Tedeschi Trucks Band is a much larger operation: bass, keys, two drummers, a three-piece brass section, multiple guitars (Tedeschi, Trucks, and guests), and three backing vocalists (each singer wields a mean tambourine or shaker when a song goes full throttle). Sure, some listeners will miss the simplicity and rawness of the Dominos, but it’s a marvel what the Tedeschi Trucks Band can express with so many moving parts. Though most of the songs have deceptively simple verse/chorus structures, they can actually move through a nuanced dance of grooves and moods. Listen to the dynamics on “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” for instance, how it backs off from its own roar into an extended quiet passage, where the lead instruments carry on an intimate conversation while the rhythm purrs and pulses ands surges underneath. “Layla,” “Tell the Truth,” and “Keep on Growing” are other examples where the band organically forms peaks and troughs and swells, and takes their own sweet time to do so.
No surprise that the songs called out above happen to be the least formulaic, the most original offerings on an album that’s also stocked with blues and R&B standards. It’s not that Trucks and company sleepwalk through timepieces like “Keys to the Highway” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” but the tribute’s highlights are elsewhere.
The original Layla got some excellent mileage from its two vocalists—Clapton backed by the soulful Bobby Whitlock—but Layla Revisited offers more variation. Variety is especially welcomed on a 2-CD, 3-LP recording. Susan Tedeschi is a knockout lead singer. She even shines in the supporting role, when another singer takes the lead; in those moments she channels some of Whitlock’s distinctive vocal moves but with her own gritty slant. When Trey Anastasio takes on the occasional lead vocal, he’s adequate to the task. On guitar, too, he brings that welcomed variety, but he doesn’t have a particularly great night. His purpose seems to be to give his friends Tedeschi and Trucks a break, rather than a spark, comfort not combustion. Trucks, on the other hand, doesn’t seem able to play anything that’s not remarkable, and he’s frequently astonishing.
Layla Revisited brings a cohesiveness to the song collection that the somewhat choppy original doesn’t have, without making all the songs sound the same. It’s a tribute from one of the best bands in the business, playing first-rate song material that they’ve absorbed in a deeply personal way. It could only get better than this if the host band had a guest as special as the guest on the original, which is way too much to ask.
Layla Revisited Track listing:
- I Looked Away
- Bell Bottom Blues
- Keep On Growing
- Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
- I Am Yours
- Key To The Highway
- Tell The Truth
- Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?
- Have You Ever Loved A Woman?
- Little Wing
- It’s Too Late
- Thorn Tree In The Garden (studio)