Part II of III, Please read part I if you have not already
Round 3: "Running on Faith" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Jerry Williams).
With his third straight song from his most recent LP, Clapton waters the garden into a modest mellow mood. This is where E.C. gets Extra Careful. Subtle moments demand subtle moves and, piping hymn-like backing vocals, the band sweetens its act with a soft shower of quasi-religious sounds.
In his late teens, Clapton had considered a career in making stained-glass. Now, in his mid-40s, he creates a stained-glass milieu. Standing more still than his wax-figure self in Madame Tussand's Museum, his voice tries for a supernal feel as he sings a number that puts love on a religious plane.
This singer of "Running on Faith" appears to have a cabalistic faith in himself and his work. The man has not just survived, but has done so by staying close to his blues sources with an obduracy born of indelible conviction.
Clapton's love for the blues has been more than a summer romance. By dint of his faith in blues truths, he has stayed with the relationship through thick and thin; a solid marriage.
His song at this juncture has a hint of schmaltz to it, but the angelic texture carries it off. The lead-guitar underscores the gravity of the issue with a short solo. The big bright soft hands stand out on the guitar neck like headlights on the front car grill of a funeral procession. Carloads of congregated faces follow faithfully.
Round 4: "I Shot the Sheriff" (461 Ocean Boulevard album, 1974; written by Bob Marley).
Here our world-champ boxing metaphor permeates into a shootout at the fantasy factory between the sheriff and Eric. The band sidles out of faith-finding single-stepping and starts to rollick.
As the stage disposition becomes more buoyant, one wonders if Clapton learned the song to shoot at the not-so-moot point that is his fame. To be sure, in the high noon of rock guitar, he is the sheriff (even though he fires through Marshalls).
Think of it: the guy has had the rep of being the fastest — and best — guitar gun in town for a full quarter-century now. (A quarter-century is a lifetime in the ultra-speedo roll of rock time; truly, twenty-seven years was the entire span for Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Brian Jones, and Duane Allman.)
It was in a London subway station in 1965 that E.C. was sloganized into the best in the west. The graffiti said "Clapton Is God" and the phrase jumped at a full gallop from graffiti to grapevine to grand mythology.
Nowadays, the fame is off the scale. No guitarist in rock 'n' roll is more assiduously observed and talked about. If fame were a number, Clapton's would be infinity. He's not of this planet: he just visits for concerts and recording sessions.
So runs the well-oiled machine of his myth. He has won so many awards that, if his reputation gets blown up anymore, it will just explode. Then they'll probably make up another new award: ladies and gentlemen, here with us tonight to receive the first annual Rock 'n' Roll Hindenburg Award…
The rock guitarist's fame has become something like a religion: many worship, but few understand. His mystic-mythic status has been both his salvation and his cross: salvation because it pays his bills (and then some!) and is a fine reward at the moments when he deserves it; cross because it makes his life unreal at the moments when he doesn't feel he deserves it.
Either way, the fellow has long been overburdened by the daily expectation of super-high quality. So one has to wonder if he utilizes "I Shot the Sheriff' as a public showdown with his own reputation as ace guitar-slinger of the wild western world.
In point of fact, it is midway through the Bob Marley number this evening that Clapton closes his eyes and discharges his first absolutely outrageous solo. Since the man on lead-guitar shoots his best ammo when he improvises, the solo is a stunner.
The action on the guitar is so fast, you wonder if he spent the day boiling the guitar in motor oil. If the guy's hands were on a steering wheel instead of a guitar, he'd be doing 190. The smoldering little notes fly out like scattershot in all directions, yet the handicraft is unerring.
Momentarily, one has a sense of the heat of the Madison Square Garden spotlights. One also has a sense that, when Clapton plays seriously, it's not just a treat, it's a treatise. He's one of the few "living legends" who isn't a lying legend. He's as good as, his rep, maybe better.
Round 5: "White Room" (Wheels of Fire album, 1968; written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown).
Having purged the air with a lengthy guitar solo, Captain Crossroads now decides to perfume the place with psychedelia. He spouts forth a tune from Cream, a group which started in 1966 and ended in 1968.
Fact is, when Cream played, it was the Bermuda Triangle of rock bands: you never knew where the three people in it were going to go next, or why. This was also the group that turned a guitar jam into a joust.
For many listeners, Clapton's work in Cream is the cream of his entire canorous crop. It's as if any band he's been in since has been a semi-band — more or less Clapton and Co. They regard his groups since Cream as Cream and Sugar — softer, more nectared; more suggestive of a tea-and-crumpets party than a blues jam; more on the Saturday Night Live side than Saturday night on Chicago's South Side.
Tonight, the Clapton coterie punches out its number so adeptly that, for the first time in the evening, the lead-guitarist looks as if he's having fun. Cantillating through the song's lower ranges, he seems a soaring rooster at the axis of a six-stringed weathervane.
Quite a sight: a white man in a white suit singing a psychedelic-colored number about a white room.
Round 6: "Can't Find My Way Home" (Blind Faith album, 1969; written by Stevie Winwood).
With the momentum back up to a burning ten, Clapton turns over center stage and vocal duties to his bass player, Nathan East.
One is reminded of another Garden performance almost twenty years ago, on August 1, 1971. That day the guitarist played this very hall with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in the Concert for Bangladesh. It's hard not to reflect on how the Clapton charisma permeates the kingsize venue just as potently as the entire Bangladesh contingent did two decades ago.
The song at this point in time is too high for the Clapton throat. So it goes to the bassist for more mellifluent treatment. East comes through with a creditable rendition of the Winwood piece.
As East sings north, the bandleader goes south — steps back — and scans the crowd. He has been applauded vigorously all night. Yet, institution that he may be, applause is never old-shoe to him. It's never something he takes for granted and here he seems to be sending out radar to probe just what kind of audience he's playing to.
It's notable that while it is Nathan East who sings the Blind Faith song, and it's Stevie Winwood who wrote it, the audience attaches the creation to Clapton. More than likely, that's because of his persistent band-jumping throughout his long career.
Blind Faith, for example, didn't even last a full year. It started up in early '69, and folded up in late '69. For Clapton, bands are like airplane landings: if you can walk away from them, you're a success. One hopes that he holds onto his present group at least until the evening is over.
Round 7: "Bad Love" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Eric Clapton and Mick Jones).
After three numbers from a couple of decades or so ago, the Endowed One boomerangs the crowd back to the present and to the power with some strafing blues. The band plays the song faster than on the recorded version.
In sharp atmospheric strokes, Clapton once again achieves the form-fitting interlocking of blues and rock so that they cohere in the ear. It is a music of tears carrying lyrics of fears. In the middle of the number, there is a striking moment when the music stops, the lights fade to a hoodooed blue, and the lead-guitar begins to wail.
As the blue music falls upon the gathering's shoulders, one is reminded of the fact that Clapton once said his favorite book of all time was Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.
In the novel, Barnaby has a talking raven named Grip. With his guitar "grip" during "Bad Love," Clapton evinces the bad bird. The sense of grimness is that implacable. It's as if the guy at center-stage is a lone raven in a dark ravine. Only an artist of broad imagination and wondrous skill could conjure up such an aphotic mood.
Round 8: "Lay Down Sally" (Slowhand album, 1977; written by Eric Clapton and Marcy Levy).
The concert reaches its exact mid-point here and this most adroit of guitar players shows his unswerving sense of structure.
After shuttling from present to past to present — and shuffling from fast to slow to fast — he loosens up the set list. It's an agreeable break from the frenetic rocking and impassioned blues.
Clapton's fingers wink and the guitar makes carefree eye contact as the song rolls along blithely. Even the guitarist's face relaxes: he looks as if he could be juggling six apples and not miss a note… or an apple.
Actually, just now there's the trace of something paradoxical in the performer. Watching Clapton, one gets the feeling of a middle-aged veteran at work, but along with it there is the sense of a boy just ripping away.
The guitar picks are by Ernie Ball and anyone can see that's just what the picking guitarist is having up there: an earnest ball. At age two-score-and-five, he plays with the love of a teenager who just bought his first guitar. (Yet another side-swipe at the Dickens' set list: A Tale of Two Claptons.)
Round 9: "No Alibis" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Jerry Williams).
Sally's fine-fun lay-down has mollified the crowd and so it's time to return to the new material and sizzle again. On to the stage Clapton brings singer Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates’ fame. The lead-guitarist tips into the microphone, an English Eiffel Tower ever in control, and Hall backs him up on a few vocal licks. The song itself is sinewy yet spry.
Clapton's fingers jump all over the guitar like he had frog legs for dinner. But it is a style devoid of waste. The man performs more with his mind than his body. It's a fact: Captain Crossroads moves less like Jimi Hendrix on a guitar than like Bobby Fischer at a chessboard.
It's less like watching a rock 'n' roll shaman than like watching a computer hum. But while there are musicians in the world who are better at playing with the guitar, there aren't too many who play it better.
The stockstill stance and the song title "No Alibis" remind one of a certain night in the late 70’s. Clapton got hold of a samurai sword and climbed out onto the 26th-floor ledge of the Rainbow Hilton Hotel in Honolulu. He came in off the ledge but, the sword still in his hand, three cops arrived and the guitarman had to stand stockstill — three guns pointed at his head — no alibis.
Round 10: "Old Love" (Journeyman album, 1989; written by Eric Clapton and Robert Cray).
The lights dim and a slow, spiraling intro lets the crowd know that Mr. E.C. is once again about to labor in the venial vineyards of the blues. This song off the new album is one of the most rippable that Clapton has ever written.
He tucks a cigarette into the neck of the guitar and, under a solitary yellow spot, sings dolefully of old love. He looks like a loner as he plays. Yet the tune is one of rapt attachment. The cigarette burns. The song burns. The hurt burns.
The guitar smokes. Clapton takes a couple of steps back to improvise. Instead of standing stage-center, he turns to his right and begins to walk around the stage, behind the drums, stopping to solo at several points.
Cigarette smoke helixing out of the top of his guitar, the bandleader alchemizes the enormous amphitheater into a little blues club. These aren't elongated improvisational riffs caterwauling like a hundred banshees on an Irish coast at midnight, but, rather, tight, sharp, well-placed essays.
Clapton rips and the clapping ripples. Slowhand deals a fast hand here. It is downright bewildering to watch such close-to-violent emotions in such a tranquil frame. Yet excoriating finger finesse is why the man is not just a star, but a lodestar… in a bluesy constellation.
Round 11: "Tearing Us Apart" (August album, 1986; written by Eric Clapton and Greg Phillinganes).
Clapton shoots some new fireworks into the constellation of his concert station with a trenchant rocker from a few years back. It takes just seconds for him to jump-start the crowd out of slow old love and into today's love that's so rapidly tearing us apart.
The concert's cadence picks up without the audience even knowing it. The subtle rhythmic lift reveals a performance proficiency grounded in thousands of hours of experience. The number aches with the eternal sound of a hounded soul. Dishing out high-speed runs, Clapton takes the back route around the stage again, much to the obstructed-view seaters' delight.
The guitarist's work on the piece rings of competence and dependability and an unappeasable desire for excellence. You get the feeling that mediocrity is toxic to him. He reminds one of a player of another stick of wood: Joe DiMaggio, a.k.a. The Yankee Clipper.
Like Ric the Ripper, DiMaggio was smooth without being slick — another heavy hitter, another man heartbroken over his obsession with a beautiful woman (in his case, someone named Marilyn Monroe).
I suppose, to carry the analogy one step further, if the all-time greatest rock guitarists were narrowed down to a nine-man baseball team, Clapton would bat clean-up. Who can be better counted on to deliver? Who else to put at the heart of the order but the one who plays with the most heart?
Listen to the crowd listening to Clapton. If Yankee Stadium is The House That Ruth Built, then tonight Madison Square Garden is The House That E.C. Brought Down.
Please continue reading: Part III