A Fan's Notes: Eric Clapton: Inspired and On Fire Print
Monday, 03 March 2008 05:13
Image By Chip Lovitt - GJD Contributor
It was a cold winter night in NYC, but Eric Clapton was positively on fire the when I caught him in concert with Steve Winwood. The occasion was one of three highly anticipated shows he gave at Madison Square Garden this past February. Inspired by the presence of the British rock veteran and his longtime musical friend, Steve Winwood, Clapton delivered an electrifying show and some of the most powerful and passionate guitarwork I've ever heard him play. And I've seen him nearly a dozen times over the past 35 years, and that includes the 2005 Cream reunion show.

crossroads07_winwood_clapton_7998.jpg Winwood's not only a multi-talented keyboard player, adept on both on the Hammond organ and piano, but he's also a fine guitarist able to hold his own in a guitar duel with Slowhand.

And it goes without saying that Winwood is also one of THE great rock vocalists. That voice-which many of us first heard when he sang "Gimme Some Lovin'" as a teenager in the Spencer David Group-has lost nothing over the years. The comparisons to Ray Charles that Winwood inspired as a 16-year old are still valid today, and when he performed a soulful, solo version of "Georgia on My Mind," on the Hammond organ, it was as if Brother Ray were still with us.

In his recent biography, Clapton makes it clear that his friendship with Winwood, which dates back to the 1960s, is both personal and musical. Unlike the contentious, ego-driven tensions that existed in Cream, Clapton and Winwood seemed to truly enjoy sharing the stage when I saw them. It certainly didn't hurt either that the band also included the veteran bassist, Willie Weeks, British keyboard ace Chris Stainton (of Joe Cocker and the Grease Band fame) and an indefatigable drummer, Ian Thomas.

Winwood's musical personality and presence, especially his commanding lead vocals and solid harmony vocals, allowed Clapton to step a bit out of the spotlight and be a bandmember as much as a bandleader. I've never seen him looking more relaxed on stage than he did at Madison Square Garden. I've often thought that Clapton has often been happiest as a sideman, like he was with Delaney and Bonnie in 1969 or when he teamed up with kindred spirits like George Harrison, Duane Allman, or B.B. King. With Winwood providing such solid support, Clapton was able to concentrate on his guitarwork and the result was some of his finest playing ever. Like I said, he was inspired and on fire.

Clapton's phrasing on lead guitar was impeccable and I've never heard it sharper or more focused. He's always been a master at building a solo, spinning out notes and musical phrases, then chopping and choking them off, only to use that end point to build a new lead line. It's like writing that perfect sentence, one that ends on just the right word or turn of phrase, then using that thought to build the next sentence, picking up where the first one left off. That tight and terse musical phrasing has always been a hallmark of Clapton's playing (probably inspired in no small part by Eric's idols such as Buddy Guy, and the Kings-Freddie and B.B.). That style is something many of us guitar players have tried to emulate over the years, but no one does it quite like Clapton.

The show was also unlike previous Clapton concerts in its song selection. Mixing songs from Eric's solo career, and tunes by Traffic, Blind Faith, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson, the two-hour and twenty-minute performance was all over the musical map.

Kicking off the show with Blind Faith's "Had to Cry Today," Clapton grabbed the crowd's attention instantly with that that thunderous and unforgettable opening guitar riff and he didn't let go for the rest of the night. After a scorching version of "Forever Man," Clapton ripped into the trademark riff to "Them Changes," the classic tune Buddy Miles wrote and later sang with Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies. (The tune would take on a deeper meaning a few nights later following Miles' sudden death.)

Another Blind Faith tune, "In the Presence of the Lord," followed. After EC's trademark wah-wah solo, Winwood moved to the piano, where he launched into Traffic's classic cut off John Barleycorn Must Die, "Glad." Winwood's fluid piano playing drove the song, but at the same time, it gave Clapton the space and context to add all kinds of jazzy and bluesy lines to the tune. After jamming on the song for a few minutes, the band turned on a dime and delivered a spirited version of Buddy Holly's "Well Alright"-again from the Blind Faith catalog. Clapton cranked out those alternately sweet and stinging fat Strat tones he's famous for, and he did it with more fire and ferocity than I've ever heard from him.

Next Winwood plucked a pearl from the Traffic catalog with "Pearly Queen," which was followed by a rocking and rollicking version of "Tell the Truth" from the Derek and the Dominoes Layla sessions. Dipping further into Traffic's repertoire, the band reached back to Traffic's 1967 debut disk, Mr. Fantasy, for a moody but melodic rendition of "No Face, No Name, No Number."

Following a revved up version of "After Midnight," Clapton pulled out a Martin acoustic guitar and offered up a solo performance of Robert Johnson's "Ramblin' on My Mind." It's not often a singer with a lone acoustic guitar can successfully pull off a fingerpicked blues song in front of 25,000 noisy fans in a sports arena, but if anyone can do it, Clapton can and he did.

After Winwood's gorgeous solo Hammond organ excursion on "Georgia on My Mind," Clapton launched into a breathtakingly beautiful version of Hendrix's "Little Wing." Then, with Winwood assuming lead vocal duties, the band cooked up a smoldering, slow-burn cover of another Hendrix classic, "Voodoo Child."

Winwood then strapped on an acoustic-electric guitar and picked out the opening figure of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," much to the crowd's delight. Instead of the original acoustic-based arrangement, Clapton's electric lead guitar solos added a new sheen to an old favorite. But like all great songs, the tune sounded as timeless as it did when it was first released in 1969.

Traffic's signature song, "Dear Mr. Fantasy," closed the show as Winwood picked up a Stratocaster and engaged in a call and response guitar duel with Clapton. Needless to say, Winwood more than held his own as he duplicated the solo from the original version of the song. Clapton then kicked the energy level up a notch and brought the song to a climax as the two guitarists teamed up to deliver the song's pulsing, pounding ending.

Coming back on stage for an encore, Clapton led a shuffling, slowed-down version of "Crossroads," one that owed more to J.J. Cale's laid-back style than the jackhammer treatment Eric originally gave the song on Cream's Wheels of Fire live disk. The show ended with the five musicians taking their bows, all smiles and basking in the crowd's applause and adulation.

I know there are some guitar fans who say that in recent years, Clapton's playing has lost some of its fire and passion. But as Bo Diddley sang in "Who Do You Love?", "You shoulda heard just what I seen." If they had been at the show I saw, I'm willing to bet even the doubters would change their minds and acknowledge the fact that Eric Clapton remains
one of the true masters of the electric guitar. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.