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Eric Clapton At Madison Square Garden, Friday, May 1st, 2015, Reviewed

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EC @ 70

When Eric Clapton comes to town and you hear about it, and plonk down a hundred bucks for a side of stage nosebleed ticket, what is difficult to remember is about 50% of Clapton’s recorded career fucking sucks. Say nearly everything from There’s One In Every Crowd to Old Sock, some livers and some blues moves excepted. Clapton went from super guitarist afro tinged UK blues champ in the 1960s to a sex kitten EC, hooked on Patti Boyd, and in the wilds of Florida playing laid back, blues tinged marijuana music on album after album after album in the 1970s. By the 1980s he was next MTV pretender,  MOR balladeer in a Giorgio Armani suit while garnering his two big hits “Wonderful Tonight” (1977) and “Tears In Heaven” (1992)  along the way. Live, he was up and down, but mostly up. On record? Nah.

Last night at Madison Square Garden, in celebration of his 70th birthday, Eric had all the powers and all the problems you’d associate with the legendary guitarist. When playing his Fender, the God Clapton still had godlike tendencies, but when going rural on our ass, or trotting out the hits, or finger picking the bent notes on an acoustic “Layla”  he sure wasn’t.

But first we got half an hour of the great Andy Fairweather Low. Andy is the UK equivalent of Nils Lofgren, a star who became a sidesman. If Andy had included two songs from his Amen Corner days, “Bend Me Shape Me” and “If Paradise Is Half As Nice”, along with his two solo smashes  (I mean in the UK of course) “La Booga Rooga” and “Wide Eyed And Legless”, it would have been a streamlined tip of the hat by a true and real journeyman, a smart guitarist seeped in UK pop and the blues with a fine backing band. As it was, it went too heavy on the blues and failed to give the 48 year veteran the oversight Andy owed himself.

Nearly exactly the opposite of Clapton’s problem last night. For his 70th birthday, Clapton gave us something of a career retrospective, electrified blues classics, MOR hits, guest stars aplenty, JJ Cale inspired acoustic strums, and a big bang boom of two Robert Johnson classics near the end. Opening with his usual blues tally “Somebody’s Knocking” followed by “Keys To The Highway’, two gigantic lickaholic songs, with Eric playing bottleneck through the latter, his fingers so fast it is hard to see his pick as he flicks the strings almost telepathically. This was followed by a beaming John Mayer  joining Eric on “Pretending” -the Journeyman classic was a sterling piece of shared glory. It reminded you that though Clapton hasn’t been in a band in decades, he is a team player. That’s the wonderful (tonight) thing about his Crossroads performances. It is just a blast to see Eric with a BB King or a Buddy Guy or a Robert Cray. Or even a John Mayer, a guitarist I never rated as highly as another great blues guitarist, Tomas Doncker, does, but Mayer is both fast and supple and roaring with a Hendrix swagger not a Clapton intensity last night.

This is why we are here, to hear where the guitar meets the soul, transcendence through music, and though even at his best last night, well, we’ve seen better, we have certainly seen worse. Joined on stage by Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks for “Let It Rain”, Eric couldn’t stop smiling over at Doyle -a connection to Lightnin Hopkins through Doyle’s father who used to play the drums with Hopkins and Freddie King, and later Doyle’s buddy (and my old drinking friend) Jimmie Vaughan joined in for a shitkicking “Before You Accuse Me”, Vaughn gave a powerful, rhythm based swinging for the fences performance. The guest guitarist all returned for the encore.

There is thought behind the performance, I mentioned the back to back Robert Johnson’s towards the end of the two hour set, but there was back to back 461 Ocean Boulevard songs round the mid way point, back to back band solo performances,  and the acoustic portion almost felt like a singalong portion,. When he goes back to electric, he holds out a song before performing “Wonderful Tonight”.

All of this is terrific, but an acoustic “Layla”? I have never for a second liked the acoustic “Layla” -it is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa and I didn’t like it last night though somebody (who’d been singing along all night, the putz) ranked it the best of evening. So “Layla” plus the hits were a drag. Plus Paul Carrack’s muzak “You Are So Beautiful To Me” (why not “How Long” or “Tempted”?), so heartfelt you wanna punch him, they derail the set set and even when Clapton pulls out a sweet sounding solo towards the end of the Carrack track, it doesn’t save him. If you add to that the lack of occasion for the evening, despite being a celebration of Eric’s 70th birthday, it isn’t quite the greatness we hoped for.

The band are good, folks like Carrack and bassist Nathan East are old pros, and they take their solos, as they are, with deftness, without ego or overwhelming ambition. Nathan sings a fine lead vocal on “Can’t Find My Way Home”. They give much more than anonymity, Clapton leans on them when he feels like it, hands em the keys when appropriate. And over the years Clapton’s voice has lost its reediness, he sounds like he can sing the blues, it centers his performance and centers the band.

With  all that  said you are still stuck with Clapton’s career. To be true to his music, he has to come to terms with huge swathes of MOR and acoustic blues that he can’t pull off and seldom has. Last year’s JJ Cale tribute album was a beauty, last nights “Cocaine” wasn’t. I saw Clapton at this venue maybe 20 years ago performing an all blues set and that, like this, was generous, but without the dross. It was better, it was the art in Clapton whereas everything he learnt from 461 he never applied correctly and it leaves him performing songs he should drop: his genius is electric blues guitar with a pop sensibility, and I don’t mean “Tears In Heaven”, I mean Graham Gouldman, forged in the UK chart battles of the early 1960s; I wish he performed to that genius.

Friday night Clapton had moments that made it all worth while, indeed, if the second night of the two night stand was Saturday instead of Sunday, I might very well forego Mayweather and Manny to take another listen. There was a lot of what we came for, a lot of solos, a lot of sweet sounds.  But it was a little by rote, beautiful, emotional and still a touch sterile. The spark of an improvisation giant wasn’t really there, the set needs a shake up, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world..

Grade: B+

Somebody’s Knocking
Key to the Highway
(Charles Segar cover)
Pretending
(with John Mayer)
Hoochie Coochie Man
(Willie Dixon cover)
You Are So Beautiful
(Billy Preston cover) (Paul Carrack on lead vocals)
Can’t Find My Way Home
(Blind Faith song) (Nathan East on lead vocals)
I Shot the Sheriff
(The Wailers cover)
Driftin’ Blues
(Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers cover) (Acoustic)
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
(Jimmy Cox cover) (Acoustic)
Tears in Heaven
(Acoustic)
Layla
(Derek and the Dominos song) (Acoustic)
Before You Accuse Me
(Bo Diddley cover) (with Jimmie Vaughan)
Wonderful Tonight
Let It Rain
(with Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks)
Cross Road Blues
(Robert Johnson cover)
Little Queen of Spades
(Robert Johnson cover)
Cocaine
(J.J. Cale cover)
Encore:
High Time We Went
(Joe Cocker cover) (Paul Carrack on lead vocals – with Mayer, Vaughn, Bramhall, and Trucks)

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