Clapton is almost blue
by Seth Rogovoy

(ALBANY, N.Y., June 24, 2004) – Eric Clapton opened and closed his concert on Wednesday night at the Pepsi Arena on high notes (in closing the show with his hit song, “Cocaine,” on a high note of a specialized sort). “Let It Rain,” which kicked off the evening, was a sunny bit of early-‘70s utopianism that set a laid-back mood for much of the evening that was in remarkable contrast to the slick, contemporary professionalism that dominated his last concert here almost three years ago to the day. In his long, fluid guitar lines during his solo – lines that were answered in cascades of chords by his keyboardist – Clapton revealed himself to be as much the progenitor, for better or worse, of today’s psychedelic jam-rock as he was, in his work with Cream, for better or worse, of heavy metal.

In fact, if someone had walked in during the show’s early version of “I Shot the Sheriff,” the Bob Marley song that Clapton took to the top of the pop charts in 1974, he could have been forgiven for thinking he had wandered into a time warp and that it was Jerry Garcia playing guitar and not Clapton, so gently groovy and psychedelic was the guitar solo that extended that otherwise flaccid number in a concert filled with far too many of those.

While the 59-year-old Clapton almost entirely bypassed his latter-day career as a sentimental, pop-soul balladeer – no “Change the World,” no “My Father’s Eyes,” no “Tears in Heaven” -- in favor of his early rock hits and a healthy portion of the blues, the show was nevertheless surprisingly tame, if not downright genteel. It was clear from the second number, an attempt at a fiery “Hoochie Coochie Man,” that Clapton’s recent turn back toward the blues that have fueled most of his music is more of an intellectual project than an emotionally-driven one, as the number was given a fat, plodding arrangement, claustrophobic, starved-for-air cocktail-lounge blues that lacked even the hint of any sleaze.

Midway through the program, Clapton’s bassist and second guitarist joined him in a row of chairs front and center for a mini-set of Robert Johnson tunes from his new tribute album, “Me and Mr. Johnson.” While Clapton was clearly as comfortable in these tunes as he was in his sneakers and blue jeans, and while “They’re Red Hot” was upbeat, jazzy fun, there was something forced about putting these numbers across in an intimate fashion to an arena crowd.

Even the thrill of the first seven notes of “Layla” – seven of the most thrilling, recognizable notes in the history of rock – didn’t last more than a few seconds into that number near the end of the evening, as Clapton and his band ran through the song by the numbers, without any of the searing passion or heft that powered the original.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 25, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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