The last time I set foot in the Staples Center, Albert Gore was accepting the Democrats’ presidential nomination and unveiling $2.3 trillion in new federal spending programs. An evening with Eric Clapton at the same venue on August 17 was — to say the least — easier on the ears…and the wallet.
The veteran rock & roller came to downtown Los Angeles on a mild summer evening for the penultimate show on the last stop of his North American tour. Before resting up a bit and taking his guitar case to Latin American and Japanese arenas this fall, Slowhand was true to his word. He told a sold-out crowd, “We’re going to do a selection of stuff, old and new.” And he and his band did, comfortably blending several cuts from Reptile, the superb and most recent addition to his discography, along with landmark tunes from his years in Cream, all the way back to the mid-1960s when graffiti on London’s walls proclaimed: “Clapton is God.”
Clapton looked more like an incredibly relaxed mortal as he took the stage, alone, with his acoustic guitar. Clad in an untucked, lightly-striped guayabera shirt and tan khaki pants, he resembled a man on vacation in Panama. Clapton sat down in a chair and opened with a breezy rendition of Charles Segar’s and Big Bill Broonzy’s classic, “Key to the Highway.” With just a slight growl in his voice, Slowhand was as at ease as he typically is with such Delta blues standards.
The crisp notes of Clapton’s acoustic then yielded to a bit more reverb from his hollow-body electric on Reptile’s title tune. This light, rich instrumental rock-samba suited the vaguely tropical attire Clapton’s bandmates wore as they joined him on stage. Each was colorfully attired. None had his shirt tucked in.
Keyboardist David Sancious took this opportunity to play a solo on the Yamaha VL-1 Breath Controller. Approximating a thin strand of black licorice hanging from his lips, this amazing device sounded much like a soprano saxophone. While it looked perfectly silly on the large video screens that projected the musicians’ moves on either side of the stage, it added an intriguing flavor to this and several subsequent songs.
A very soulfully-played version of “Got You on My Mind,” also from Reptile followed. It was easy on the ears despite the absence of The Impressions, the outstanding rhythm and blues vocalists who added so very much to Clapton’s latest album. While the Chicago-based ensemble behind such old hits as “People Get Ready” and “It’s All Right” appeared with Clapton earlier this year, they were absent from this leg of the tour. Still, Sancious, rhythm guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and bassist Nathan East did a fine job of backing Clapton vocally as well as instrumentally. Drummer Steve Gadd — who played on Steely Dan’s masterpiece, Aja — kept his mouth shut but banged away faithfully on the skins.
“Tears in Heaven,” Clapton’s ballad devoted to his deceased young son, seemed an oddly mournful choice so early on a Friday night. Still, legendary “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston added subtle and beguiling flourishes to this song on his Hammond B-3. Throughout the show, Preston contributed one magic touch after another from his perch behind this Stradivarius of church organs. He played it masterfully, and with an energy and verve that consistently earned the loudest ovations, save for those the audience dedicated to the show’s headliner.
Clapton and Preston were phenomenal together on “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and the more recent “Change the World.” They and their colleagues achieved surprisingly high rock mileage from this fairly gentle ballad. Sometimes hard and slow works better than light and fast.
Soon, a black curtain behind the completely bare stage rose to reveal 13 columns, each containing eight of what appeared to be the inside of a white umbrella, with its stalk removed and with what would be its dry side facing the audience. Stitched together into a sort of giant, concave quilt, they served as a backdrop for much of the rest of the show. Mysteriously, the stage crew raised and lowered the curtain to expose and re-obscure what was the show’s only prop, seemingly at random, from one tune to another.
Clapton’s voice, meanwhile, showed great strength and range, even after 28 weeks on the road. His playing was clear and fluid, whether he sat behind a wooden acoustic or stood, in classic rock-icon style, with a solid-body Fender electric in one hand and a guitar pick in the other.
Eric Clapton was born on March 30, 1945, in the waning days of World War II’s European battles. Svelte and cheerful beneath a cropped beard and short hair, he looks great at age 56. While Clapton seemed no worse for the wear, his audience showed its years. A couple of fans actually walked in on canes.
Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine wrote an August 22 piece about this concert. As he walked into the arena, Erskine noted that “It’s less like a rock concert than a giant PTA meeting, say, at Beverly Hills High School, where the parents are well-dressed and a little gray around the edges. We’re at a rock concert, but everyone is wearing collared shirts.”
Well, so was I.
Fashion aside, the night’s biggest disappointment was the crowd, whose butts were almost universally, well, stapled to their seats. Even with a touch of grey on my scalp, I found this maddening. A rock concert should be a place to stand up, dance and celebrate music, not a kind of collective home viewing of VH-1.
Appropriately enough, Clapton’s hit, “Cocaine,” finally energized the audience and got them on their feet, singing and clapping in rhythm. The crowd remained standing for “Layla,” to close the show, and throughout the splendid encore.
Clapton and his merry men re-claimed the stage and surprised everyone with Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles,” an infectiously upbeat 70′s funk tune. Preston carried the vocal, enthusiastically pounded away on the B-3, then jumped out on the stage and danced a jig. With this tune, the high-stepping, fleet-fingered Billy Preston cemented his spot as this show’s co-star.
The band went into a strong and steady reading of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” Who needed those 104 umbrellas anyway?
Clapton finally wound the show down as it began: back in his chair, strumming his acoustic guitar. He sent us home with an absolutely beautiful interpretation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that would have lit up Judy Garland’s face. As Eric Clapton wondered shortly before the house lights came up, “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?”