Apr 022009

In honor of my having watched The Last Waltz for what may have been the 100th time after happening upon it during a flip of channels this evening, I felt like revisiting this breakthrough analysis, if I do say so myself. Among the thousands of things I love about The Last Waltz is Scorcese’s keen eye for rock porn interplay. Does any other rock film allow for as many voyeuristic views of hot musician-on-musician action?

This post initially appeared 6/18/07.

Surely you know the game Rock, Paper, Scissors. You probably know it better than I do. Scissors cut paper, paper covers rock, rock smashes scissors. Using the following clip from The Last Waltz, I’ll ask you to play a similar game I like to call Licks, Faces, Feel. In this game, feel exposes faces, faces amplify licks, and licks always feel good.*

I’m going to ask you to watch the following performance of “Further On Up the Road”, featuring a guitar dual between Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson of The Band, and I’m going to ask you to analyze this video clip, at first, at least three ways:

  • With the sound OFF and your eyes fixed on the screen
  • With the sound ON and your eyes fixed on the screen
  • With the sound ON and your eyes closed

To keep a fresh perspective, I suggest getting up and walking around for a few minutes between each initial round of analysis.

While analyzing the video with the sound OFF and your eyes fixed on the screen, note the points at which one guitarist outshines the other in terms of his use of rock soloing faces.

While analyzing the video with the sound ON and your eyes fixed on the screen, note the points when one guitarist’s licks clearly outshine those of his opponent.

While analyzing the video with the sound ON and your eyes closed, make note of the points at which one guitarist’s feel is hitting on all cylinders.

Finally, watch the video again with the sound on. Spread your notes in front of you and assess the points at which one guitarist’s move is countered, either simultaneously or in the following solo, by another move. For instance, see if there are points at which one guitarist’s licks are countered by the other man’s faces (advantage faces). Or, perhaps, you will see a segment in which one man’s faces are exposed as cheap ploys by the other man’s feel. Or, of course, one man’s fine sense of feel will be negated by the other man’s impeccable licks. There may be times in the performance when the artists reach a draw.

Keep score and report your scores to the Hall!

*Please note that Clapton and Robertson are controlled for both Look and Gear.

NEW! Mr. Moderator weighs in with his official scoring of the dual.
Here’s my official scorecard. Please don’t let this influence or inhibit you from keeping your own score!

Sound Off
Segment 1
00:20 – Nothing special from Clapton, even his strap giving out at 00:54 causes little in the way of faces and other gestures.

00:57 – Robertson jumps in to save EC, actually dancing to the faces that the viewer of a silent video clip can only assume accompanies the solo.

1:10 – RR unleashes brief “mouthing” of his presumed solo that is undercut by a glance up at EC for approval.

1:16 – RR “conducts” EC back into solo with a hand wave, thereby commanding main camera while dancing and mouthing to his rhythm part. EC returns, still not making an impression with his faces or gestures.

Analysis of Segment 1, with sound OFF
Although RR undercuts some of his boldest gestures with overenthusiastic faces and inappropriate dancing, he can’t help but outpoint EC, to this point, based solely on facework. Later, we’ll see how Robertson’s visual approach matches up with the audio record.

Segment 2
2:14 – EC begins new solos, still laying on the ropes in terms of faces.

2:22 – EC shoots RR a “workingman’s” nod of competence. A half-hearted face accompanying a bend at 2:30 detracts from the confidence of his opening face.

2:35 – RR jumps at the chance to capitalize on EC’s first facial efforts. He’s got his whole body into whatever he’s playing. At 2:45 he uses a convincing head fake and bob and weave with the guitar to buy time until reaching his next presumed musical peak.

2:58 – RR is still soloing when camera cuts to EC, who gives a benevolent if slightly patronizing nod of approval. (Levon, outside of the scoring for this analysis, but significant nevertheless, tries to bridge a more supportive, sincere seal of approval between the ax slingers.)

3:07 – RR runs with EC’s facial props, now working his ax like Rambo firing off his machine gun.

3:11 – RR looks up and over at EC, ending solo with a “take that” wave of the hand.

Analysis of Segment 2, with sound OFF
Although limited in his arsenal of faces, Clapton’s brief, awkward use of faces at that 2:22 to 2:30 mark lured Robertson into a false sense of confidence. RR’s inability to curb his faces and gestures would work against him at this point. It will be interesting to see whether his audio record supports his seemingly overconfident faces. Will be interesting to see how RR’s second “conductor’s wave” at end of this solo will play.

Segment 3
3:14 – EC resumes singing while camera lingers on RR, to treasure RR’s pure delight in what must have been some fantastic guitar slinging. As camera cuts back to EC, shooting from stage left, if first looks as if RR is sending supportive, nourishing glances back at EC, but look more closely and you’ll see RR is looking just past EC, trying to retain the camera’s gaze. EC channels all physical energy through his beard while singing this verse.

3:48 – EC pauses before doing a little slide up the neck, signifying his final solo assault. More “all in a day’s work” faces follow.

4:00 to 4:11 – EC’s faces are searching for a new plateau. By the look of a series of “bending faces,” it seems he’s settled on new plateau. Then, he makes a few good-natured rock sneers, a heretofore unseen move by Slowhand.

4:16 – EC jerks up the neck of his guitar and makes a teenage ejaculation face, mixing awkwardness with joy. It’s his most impressive face of the performance. As the song comes to a close, he gracefully turns his attention back toward the band, then salutes the audience, soul shakes Levon Helm, and salutes Robbie, Rick, et al.

Analysis of Segment 3, with sound OFF
EC’s minimalistic use of faces, ending with his most sincere face of the performance and then his closing salutes, has muted RR’s facework during the home stretch of this performance. In terms of faces, it has come down to a matter of timing, with RR blowing his facial wad, if you’ll excuse the horrible mixing of crude metaphors, too early in the game.

Sound On, Eyes Fixed on Screen
Little could be gleaned from this stage. Clapton’s guitar work rarely inspires, although there are moments that confirm Robertson’s faces coming on stronger than his actual playing. That 1:10 mark, when I wondered whether RR’s licks could match his faces and mouthing of what looked like a fantastic solo, was telling. The solo, when heard, did not match the mouthing of the imagined solo. Similarly, after buying time at 2:45, RR’s “new peak” does not deliver. The meaning of EC’s “benevolent if slightly patronizing nod of approval,” as I reported in my solely visual notekeeping, is confirmed. “Good effort, Robbie. Glad you’re having fun,” is what EC’s look surely meant. This points to the benefit of actually listening to the music in rock videos.

Clapton’s playing is not without its faults. His “half-hearted face” at 2:30, did indeed accompany a bend, and a poorly executed bend at that. All those journeyman blues faces did indeed support journeyman blues licks. Taking everything into account, although neither the faces nor the licks were impressive unto themselves, they were consistent and accurate. The accuracy of Clapton’s faces confirm their supportive role in his music and, I believe many would agree, add to his credibility. Similarly, the “bending faces” observed with the sound off do, as it turns out, match up perfectly with his “this is the way we wash our hands” double bends on the guitar.

Sound On, Eyes Closed
This confirms almost everything seen and heard in the previous step of this analysis. I do give a few points to the jagged tone and feel of Robertson’s awkward solos, but not enough to change my final analysis and score.

Final Analysis and Score
Segment 1: Robertson’s faces outweigh both his mediocre playing and Clapton’s pedestrian run through the song’s theme and variations. Advantage Robertson Faces.

Segment 2: Clapton’s minimalistic use of faces and journeyman blues licks plays rope-a-dope with Robertson’s flurry of facial assaults. Advantage Clapton’s Licks.

Segment 3: The accuracy and sincerity of Clapton’s simple faces coupled with continued use of journeyman blues licks fends off Robertson’s tiring facial deliveries and feel-based playing. Advantage Clapton’s Sincere and Accurate Facial Accompaniment

Final decision: Through economy of faces and licks, Clapton wins on points. Robertson’s inefficient use of faces, his limited licks, and his reliance on feel fell short in the judge’s eyes despite how well the same faces and feel played on the big screen.


  21 Responses to “Licks, Faces, Feel: Robertson vs Clapton”

  1. You are a friggin’ sick pup.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    Hey, I’m only illin’ for your rock infection.

  3. Moderator,

    I’ve examined the performance, but the actual calculating is somewhat difficult. Please provide a mathematical formula of sorts to asseess the gathered statistics.

    Hope to hear from you soon,
    E. Pluribus

  4. BigSteve

    I didn’t do the whole homework assignment exactly as laid out, but I’ll jump in because no one seems to be going for this topic.

    I really didn’t see all that much facial interplay between the guitarists. Clapton pretty much keeps his head down and plays, and Robertson just seems high as a kite. He’s really not this kind of ‘cutting contest’ guitar player who can rip off a searing solo against blues changes.

    The worst facial moment comes around 3:57 when Robbie’s face tries to mimic the repetitive riff he’s playing, and it’s just not as great as his face wants us to believe it is. He’s only taking the solo there because Eric’s strap came loose after all, but he’s over-reaching. Clapton also gives some kind of inscrutable smile at around 2:11 when Robbie is tries to jack things up by playing high up on the neck. I think he’s being kind, because he knows he’s going to clean up later.

    It’s interesting to me that Clapton admired The Band so much he actually had tried to join the group a few years earlier, but here he’s the one getting all the love from the band members. Levon seems completely happy to demonstrate his skill at playing a simple shuffle, which is much harder than it looks. Clapton just plays it cool in a mandom kind of way.

    Clapton also takes a while to get into his soloing. He’s always criticized for being too controlled, but whenever I see him in this kind of blues setting, he always seems to be trying to find a way into the song, rather than just trotting out a preconceived notion of the proper solo for that particular song. Towards the end he does kind of reach into his bag of tricks for some stuff he knows is going work, but in fact he does pretty much save the number from itself.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve wrote:

    The worst facial moment comes around 3:57 when Robbie’s face tries to mimic the repetitive riff he’s playing, and it’s just not as great as his face wants us to believe it is.

    That is a telling moment. With the sound off, that might be the best solo Roberston plays during the song.

    You’ve also nailed that smile by Clapton and described what was coming perfectly.

    Nice work, my man! When I’ve got the time, I’ll do my own analysis. Maybe late tonight. Busy day for me, today.

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    I’m afraid your rules are just a wee bit too complicated for a non-baseball fantasy leaguer like me. Nevertheless, I do have a few impressions, which I’ll share momentarily.

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    The other night, in a fit of boredom, I headed over to a local bar that features a “blues jam” every Sunday. These are usually pretty dreadful affairs, but the camaraderie is sincere, in a late-40s/early 50s kind of way. (That’s as in age of participants, by the way.)

    Anyhow, there’s thankfully little of the “cutting session” vibe on display, normally. Not that I’m afraid of a little action — I can hold my own against most blooz pickers, believe it or not. Anyhow, I got real lucky and was paired up with this somewhat smelly, Bob Hite-looking fellow who came up on stage with an old Mosrite guitar. Now, in garage punk circles, this would be a big ho-hum, but to drag such a thing on stage at a white guy blooz jam shows promise, or an eccentric disregard for the conventional, or in this greasy-haired guy’s case, both. And he could play! I mean, play *right* — jumping in tastefully, being cool, etc. We really played quite well together, and I was pleased in general, as was the crowd.

    Anyhow, there was this dude in the crowd, up next, who I swear to god looked just like Wolfman Jack, who took the stage with his drummer and bassist buddies. This is bad form to begin with, as it suggests that the house band ain’t good enough for you. This image problem was compounded by the fact that he plugged in a purple-flame top Paul Reed Smith with blahdeblahdeblah active electronic jizz-wah switching and such.

    He counted off, and tore into some quick blooz shuffle of some sort. Now, make no mistake, the guy could play — but he wouldn’t shut the fuck up! It was all “11,” all 180 mph, all the time, and after about 20 seconds of this “I’m going to show this room full of fat old geezers what’s what,” folks started to walk out of the room. Problem: DICKHEAD.

    And that’s my problem with Robbie Robertson on this clip. He’s just a dickhead! You invite Eric Clapton on stage to *your* “farewell concert” (the very notion of which is pretty oogie to me), then try to cut him by going tweedly-tweedly-tweedly as fast as you can? Wearing a SCARF?! (Don’t think those things aren’t connected, by the way. Scarves are for wearing *outdoors*, to keep your neck warm. Period.) And then you’ve got the avocado-sized balls to give Clapton the “pretty hot, huh — top that” look? I don’t think so, buddy!

    Not that Capton doesn’t give as good as he gets in the cheeseball grandstanding department. And extra demerits to the idiots in the audience who leap about and wave their arms like Rajneeshees on ecstasy when Clapton goes “twee-twee-tweeee-tweeeeeee” over and over again. Ugh!

    Anyhow, those are my thoughts. Sorry I had to eschew the incomprehensible scoring system. Bottom line: they’re both losers, but Robertson is a dickhead loser to boot.

  8. Bravo, Hrundi!

    Indoor scarves always bothered/bother me. Particularly upsetting was when Lennon chose to wear one during the mid to late 70s.

    Talk to ya soon,
    E. Pluribus

  9. Mr. Moderator

    For those of you interested, I’ve added my official score to the second half of this post. Thanks.

  10. That was more or less my conclusion as well.

    E. Pluribus

  11. hrrundivbakshi

    Mr. Mod:

    Despite the fact that this may in fact be the single time-wasting-est post you’ve ever been responsible for… it may also be your proudest achievement as an RTH contributor. At every level — from demented concept to hilarious resolution — your contribution is wonderful. Mind you, as its genius propagates throughout the Web, I wonder how many idiotic EC/RR fan sites will take it, um, seriously.

  12. hrrundivbakshi

    I’ve been trying to get a particular Nashville rocker, scenester, and all-around cool guy, who shall go nameless for now (but whose blog/podcast for the local undergroundy paper can be found at http://www.nashvillescene.com/Stories/Arts/Music/SceneCast/index.shtml), to join RTH, to no avail. But we maintain an active “offlist” dialog about things that frequently deal in matters RTH-ian. I sent him Mr. Mod’s Face/Lead/Look/Whatever screed, and here was his insightful response:

    Prince at the RnR HOF doing “While My Guitar…” would win this game, hands down every time.

    People love this movie, and there are some magical moments, “It Makes No Difference” and “Baby, Don’t Do It” are great but NEIL DIAMOND (who I happen to love in context), amongst others, just sucks.

    …and Robbie Robertson, just for the record, is a modestly talented ass.

  13. Mr. Moderator

    Nice work, Hrrundi. Keep us on this dude’s radar. There will come a time when he realizes he needs our understanding and compassion. His point about Prince playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a great example of prime Licks, Faces, Feel skills.

  14. BigSteve

    Embedded youtubes on this site always count backwards, from total time down to zero, rather than forward for me (I use Firefox Mozilla). This makes it hard to compare notes.

  15. Mr. Moderator

    You’re right, Steve. When I viewed it at home, directly through YouTube on my Mac with Firefox Mozilla, it ran from zero up. Here, on my PC in work, through IE, it goes in reverse. Don’t give up regardless. I’m sure your big picture comments, if they’re as good as your initial comments, will be illuminating.

  16. meanstom

    Mod, you undervalue Clapton’s opening faces. As the clock winds down from 4:24 to 4:23, he nods his head approvingly along to a tasty little run. Form and function are working jointly from the beginning of Clapton’s performance. Otherwise, I agree with most of your analysis.

  17. Mr. Mod, this is, indeed, your finest hour. I have always been a fan (and an occasional exponent) of objective, statistical and forensic analysis of music, and you’ve done brilliantly here. I really have nothing to add in terms of scoring.

    I will, however, point out that Clapton loses points in my book for bad guitar strap/clothes coordination. If you don’t care about that stuff, go with a black strap!

    Poor Danko. He looks like he never recovered from catching sight of Robertson about to go on with that scarf: “You’re really going to wear that out there?” “Yeah!” At every moment he’s on camera, Danko appears to be thinking some combination of “I can’t fucking believe I spent almost 20 years in a band with a guy who is now wearing a salmon-colored scarf onstage” and “Must not look at scarf … will bust out laughing if I look at scarf!”

    Oh yeh one other thing: Hey Hrrundi, what kind of paradise do you live in? You can get listenable singles for a quarter and people actually go out to hear blues jamz? Damn!

  18. alexmagic

    I can only speak for this incarnation of Rock Town Hall, but this is truly a seminal, landmark work. I think fifteen, twenty years from now, the economy will have long-since collapsed and no one will have internet acess anymore, so this will be long-forgotten.

    But five, six years from now? This will be heralded as the truly groundbreaking work in Rock Sabermetrics (SWLABRmetrics?) that it is.

  19. “You invite Eric Clapton on stage to *your* “farewell concert” …then try to cut him by going tweedly-tweedly-tweedly as fast as you can? Wearing a SCARF?!”

    people in my office want to know why I was howling out loud!

    I think Robbie and Eric just have a hard-on for each other. At the Crossroads fest in 2007 they did the same kinda thing…

  20. Did Mr.Robertson wear a smart tropical print summer-scarf to that event?

    I’m kind of w/Alex on this one Moddy. Got to hand it to ya, in all seriousness, as a comic, you’re certainly keeping YOUR comedic chops up w/this baby. I can only pray that you have scribes armed with quill & parchment in the back office to assure these treasures will not be lost to the ages when the aforementioned worldwide collapse of civilization takes place.

    Or have you just reverted back to that nasty “smoking” habit (I never could make out what TYPE of ciggy that was I saw you with)?

  21. Truly the finest thread I’ve seen on this site. hrrundivbakshi’s analysis was perfect and Mr. Moderator had me shouting AMENs.
    I loved this movie when it came out, saw it as many times as I could in the theater and then bought it on VHS, DVD and now BluRay. But at some point, maybe after reading Levon’s book, I began to actively hate Robbie Robertson and find his smugness unbearable.
    Bravo for some of the finest and funniest writing I’ve seen in quite some time.

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