By Brian Ives
Last year, Eric Clapton revealed that he is suffering from peripheral neuropathy, a condition which affects nerves in the body’s extremities and can cause numbness, shooting pain and loss of co-ordination; he said that it was making it hard to play guitar anymore. Fans feared that it might spell the end of his career.
Judging by his show at New York’s Madison Square Garden last night (March 19) — his first since discussing his condition — fans need not worry. Over the course of an hour and a half show, Clapton’s guitar playing was as lyrical and soulful as it has ever been. Notably, there were no other guitarists in his band (he has toured with as many as two extra six-stringers in recent years). Clapton handled all lead and rhythm parts himself. And his vocals – always underrated, probably due to his guitar hero status – sounded great as well.
He seemed to be pacing himself a bit: he shared solos with his keyboardists, Chris Stainton and Walt Richmond. Although, on the other hand, he may have been graciously sharing the spotlight with lesser known, but extremely talented musicians. Whatever his reasoning, every solo served the song, and the fact that he played less solos made each of them all the much sweeter.
And those solos were sweet. The show was billed as “A Celebration Of 50 Years Of Music” (and, in fact, he’s been playing for quite a bit longer than 50 years, having joined the Yardbirds in 1963, and then John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1965). And yet, when he takes his solos, his eyes still shut, as if he’s concentrating and “finding” the perfect note to play next. Other times, he looks at his guitar, seemingly overjoyed with the sounds he still coaxes out of it.
The show’s “50 Years” theme seemed like a marketing ploy: the advertisement showed photos of Clapton through the decades with various bands. A more accurate theme would have been “Songs That Mean a Lot to Eric, and Eric’s Songs That Mean a Lot to You.” The setlist was pretty evenly split almost evenly between covers of (mostly) blues songs that Clapton has a history with, and the radio hits have allowed him to headline arenas for nearly all five decades of his career.
The covers were often familiar to the Clapton faithful: opening song “Key to the Highway” (a traditional song, made famous by Big Bill Broonzy and later, Little Walter) is from Derek and the Dominoes’ 1970 classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Stainton and Richmond, respectively, took the first two solos, before Clapton stepped forward to assure the fans that he’s still one of the greats to ever play the electric blues.
“Key” was one of three Dominoes songs he played, but the other two — “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (a depression-era blues, made famous by Bessie Smith”) and the immortal “Layla” — were played on acoustic guitar, using the arrangements from 1992’s MTV Unplugged.
Clapton was at his most passionate on the blues covers: Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades” (which he recorded for 2004’s Sessions for Robert J), the oft-covered and timeless Chess classic “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Johnny Moore’s “Driftin’ Blues” (which Clapton cut for the 1975 live album E.C. Was Here) and “Somebody’s Knockin'” by Clapton’s former collaborator, the late J.J. Cale (it was the only nod to Clapton’s most recent album, last year’s I Still Do).
But the songs that got the crowd on their feet were the ones that have been part of their lives the way the blues songs have been part of Clapton’s. Cream’s “Badge” and “Sunshine of Your Love” (but no “White Room!”), a reggae-tinged “Tears in Heaven,” the acoustic “Layla,” “Wonderful Tonight,” a laid-back “Crossroads,” “Cocaine” and “I Shot the Sheriff.”
He ended with a Bo Diddley cover, “Before You Accuse Me,” his only dip into his massively successful 1989 album Journeyman; for that song, he was joined by openers Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. After a full show of being the only guitarist on stage, he seemed to enjoy sharing the spotlight with two other masters of the instrument, and the trio — who have jammed often over the years — have a real chemistry. Perhaps there’s one more band in Clapton’s future?
After the show, some fans expressed surprise that the concert wasn’t longer and that he didn’t play all of the hits; it’s a bit of a churlish complaint. Yes, “White Room” is a classic; it would have been nice to hear anything from his short-lived band Blind Faith, and there were lots of solo hits that didn’t make the list (“My Father’s Eyes,” “Change the World,” “Pretending,” “Forever Man,” “Let It Rain,” the list goes on and on). But, given Clapton’s health concerns, we’re lucky he’s still playing, and that he’s in such great form.
Jimmie Vaughan opened the show with his Tilt A Whirl Band, who offered up Vaughan’s tasty blend of blues, Texas-style. His music has always been more suited to theaters (or clubs), as he has never really let arena rock seep into his set of influences. The audience was familiar with at least one song – “White Boots” — from his 1990 duo album with his late brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Family Style. He may have gotten a better response if he drew more from that album (“Tick Tock” got radio play and seems like an apt song for this era), but for fans showing up early hoping for an undistilled set of blues, Vaughan delivered.
Gary Clark Jr. played between Vaughan and Clapton and took the stage to a standing ovation; if you’ve been to many concerts by classic rock acts, you know how rare it is for a younger opening act (Clark is 33) to get much attention, much less respect. But his Hendrixian mix of blues, psychedelic, and soul has earned him fans of all generations. It won’t be a surprise if he’s doing a concert celebrating his five decades in music in 2060. Also, Clark was the only artist to mention Chuck Berry from the stage, noting that his song “Travis County” would not have been possible without Berry’s influence. It’s good to know that a thirty-year-old will carry that influence for decades to come.
Photos by Maria Ives for Radio.com.