Eric Clapton At Madison Square Garden, Monday, March 20th, 2017, Reviewed
Monday night at Madison Square Garden: was this 50 years of Clapton redux or was it the peripheral neuropathy (his hands are getting paralyzed) farewell tour? A six show stint between LA, London and New York in March followed by four shows in September is meant to say it all, though so was his birthday celebration two years ago. Maybe both, though Monday’s show was a low key affair, as was Sunday’s. Ken Davis wrote (here) a couple of days ago: the same only less. Some blues songs, the two hits, three tracks off Layla, and a Cream smashor two and on your bike.
This is self-effacing stuff, and we appreciate that, but for guitar greats like Clapton the solo is the equivalent of dropping the bass for EDM DJs, it is what we come for. He didn’t drop the bass. His performance was everything you’d want except for everything you’d want. Again, as Ken Davis noted, Clapton is at his best when he has another great guitarist to duel with and he was the sole guitarist in his band (playing both rhythm and lead: why?) and while he occasional went head to head with keyboard players Chris Stainton and Walt Richmond (and while drummer Steve Gadd killed the demi beats all the way through), he kept everything to a minimum. Bassist Nathan East (who has played with Clapton since the 1980s) said to Ultimate Classic Rock, “He really responds to musicians. One of the most fun things is to try to push each other, you know? When you have people who play with that much passion, it just causes you to dig a little deeper. And I find that it creates some really great results, in terms of what we end up with. Sometimes on a song like “I Shot the Sheriff,” you think you know what’s going to happen. Then, you start it, and it goes to another level. It’s always exciting. It’s like, fasten your seatbelts. So that is the hope though none of these musicians push him hard enough. The “I Shot The Sheriff” was a highlight though not high enough. The real highlight was a terrific keyboard solo on “Cocaine”. But except for the final song, there was no guitarist to play off. It was Clapton lite but better than that sounds. Both of his opening acts, Jimmie Vaughn and an overlong Gary Clark Jr, kept it light as well. The evening was the antithesis of arena rock, it was tight, controlled, Clapton wasn’t aiming for the rafters but rather giving a gentle nudge at his greatest hits. The proof was in the TV screens which were focused on his fingers, and his fingers seemed to effortlessly bend and twist the notes before stopping and moving on. He gave just enough of himself to remind you why you will miss him so much if these are, indeed, his last shows.
I figure Eric is up to his ears in cortisone shots right now and a little rusty, a little careful, which is why he allowed his band to be the fifth Beatle: this was crystal clear on the first encore, a “Sunshine Of Your Love” with three lead vocals, that while intensely intelligent still not exactly thrilling. Eric wasn’t exactly laid back, but ol’ Slow Hand wasn’t pushing himself either: there was a zenlike quality to his closed eyed intensity, and even when he opened em, to check his fingering during that acoustic meh take on “Layla,” age had made his eyelids almost closed. He seemed less concentrated and more meditative.
This is even true of two songs so ghastly they deserve to be in the world of records. On separated by a couple of songs on stage, “Tears In Heaven” is so sad it is inexpressly sad but in a bad way. It is a lachrymose, nonsense playing on Clapton’s deepest and saddest feelings, having your son die at the age of three can’t even really be computed it is so terrible but turning into Phil Collins to write about it makes no sense. Clapton’s artistry, the color of the blues in his blues, was made for this moment and he chose instead to compose a daydream. I neither do or don’t blame him but one thing is for sure, I don’t want to hear it. “Wonderful Tonight” is worse, a domesticated in hell “Layla” about telling the trouble and strife to shut up, it is the single worse moment in his career.
When not morphing into Genesis, Clapton is as smooth as that steady rollin’ man he has aspired towards since the mid-70s. He never quite wanted to remake himself, he wasn’t a chameleon, but the move from God in the Yardbyrds and the Bluesbreaker to rock god in Cream, was the working class joins the aristocracy of class conscious UK. By the mid-80s he was straight and wearing Armani suits, gone was the bricklayer look, gone was the fascist Clapton, replaced by a mainstream popstar. And then… he skirted for thirty years except on stage of course. Now, he is nearing the end and he has embraced the end by simplifying and codifying what he is: a white blues guitarist who became god for awhile and now is waiting to put it away. He has calmed down, backed up, the stakes aren’t that high, his legacy is in place, and so this felt like the gentlest of goodbyes. Far from the best time I’ve ever seen the living legend, it was as beneficent a farewell as possible.