It’s not a tour. He hasn’t done one since 2014. But for Eric Clapton fans—and who isn’t, really?—even a handful of dates, in just three markets, is a cause for celebration.
The first of two performances at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 19 was thus an increasingly rare treat.
Clapton had told Rolling Stone in 2013, “When I’m 70, I’ll stop. I won’t stop playing or doing one-offs, but I’ll stop touring, I think.”
He hits 72 on March 30 and he’s been true to his word. So far in 2017, he had the two Garden dates, two in Los Angeles this weekend (since postponed due to illness and moved to September), three in May at his home away from home—London’s Royal Albert Hall—followed by two each back at MSG and in L.A. in September. In 2016, he did just five shows, all at Tokyo’s Budokan. In 2015, he did a series of 70th birthday concerts in New York and London.
For this show, billed as “A Celebration of 50 Years of Music,” guitarists Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan were “special guests.” Each offered excellent 30-minute sets; Clapton can thus be forgiven for playing “only” 15 songs, lasting around 75 minutes.
Clapton led his terrific four-piece band and two backup singers on stage and with a simple “Good evening,” immediately launched into “Key to the Highway.” His first of three songs from his Cream repertoire, “Badge,” offered an extended version of that long-ago hit.
On his familiar cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” his voice sounded particularly fine, and one envisions that without the strain of a full tour, it will remain so. Illuminated in red, he offered a solid, extended guitar solo.
Related: 10 great Clapton collaborations
Clapton then took a seat for an acoustic set of four songs that mostly featured him on guitar and a bit of drums from his frequent band member Steve Gadd. He’s not known for roaming the stage but on this night a right knee brace was going to limit his movements regardless.
For the acoustic “Layla,” his longtime keyboardists Chris Stainton and Walt Richmond offered great solos, followed by Clapton’s own beautiful playing. Throughout the performance, backup singers Sharon White and Michelle John offered just the right amount of soul to buttress Clapton’s vocals.
With the audience unaware that his set was coming to an end, the band sprang to life with covers of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (just “Crossroads” when Cream first cut it) and “Little Queen of Spades.” “Gonna get me a gamblin’ woman if it’s the last thing I do,” Clapton sang, leading to another solo from Stainton, followed by a highlight-reel Clapton solo. The song received the loudest ovation of the evening.
“Cocaine” followed. The band waved to the crowd and left the stage, returning moments later for two more chestnuts: “Sunshine of Your Love” and the finale, the Bo Diddley cover, “Before You Accuse Me,” with Clark and Vaughan joining the band.
Clapton’s 2016 studio album, I Still Do, was only represented by a J.J. Cale cover. Also ignored was any acknowledgment of Chuck Berry, who had died the day before. As two of the leading guitarists on anyone’s short list of classic rock giants, it was surprising that Clapton didn’t reference the man many refer to as the “father” of rock ‘n’ roll. Clark did, however, noting at one point during his own set, “That last song wouldn’t have been possible without the influence of Chuck Berry.” He received a well-deserved ovation after his solo on “When My Train Pulls In.”
Clapton performances will likely continue to be rare occurrences. They are to be savored.
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