Round 12: "Wonderful Tonight" (Slowhand album, 1977; written by Eric Clapton).
Now there is sanctification in the air as Clapton turns his Fender down to tender and warms over an old chestnut of his own composition.
Music is dialogue between souls and here the talk turns intimate. The song is so lovely it congests the throat with emotion. It also vaunts the lead-guitarist as much or more than the sum of his famous fingers — far more than the legendary "10."
The voice soft as buttermilk, the guitar as delicate as a seashell, Clapton performs the song as if he cherishes it. This is his most personal work of the evening, made all the more effective by its being slowed down from the album version. The song discloses its composer as a supreme stylist who holds within himself a genuine dignity.
Standout though he is, Captain Crossroads knows very well one of the chief reasons he can do his job this evening is the A-l band around him. Back in 1969 at the Toronto Peace Festival, Clapton once did a show with John Lennon, and the band's only rehearsal was on the airplane on the way to the gig.
That obviously isn't the case tonight. The band is well-rehearsed, to say the least. The rock 'n' roll conductor has chosen to people his stage with seven extremely talented if relatively unheralded musicians.
After a dozen songs of pleochroic moods and styles, the seven are introduced to the tune of Sly Stone's "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin." They include: Phil Palmer (second guitar); Nathan East (bass); Steve Ferrone (drums); Alan Clark and Greg Phillinganes (keyboards); and Tessa Niles and Katie Kassoon (back-up vocals).
Round 13: "Cocaine" (Slowhand album, 1977; written by J.J. Cale). After a lull in the action, however brief, Clapton knows it's time to re-energize the crowd. So the fine-carved talent goes back to work on the fine-carved wood with an acrimonious song from over a decade ago.
These days Clapton takes neither drink nor drugs, but in the early 70’s he spent three years as a drug addict. So he knows what he's singing about.
He also knows something about addiction's little brother, obsession. He has been so obsessed with the West Bromwich Albion football team he used to sign hotel registers as "W.B. Albion." He loves Ferraris so much, he once drove to Italy just to see one of his being built.
He's so enamored of the styles of Gianni Versace, he gave the clothes designer two full pages in his current concert program. His taste for chocolate is so fervid; George Harrison built his song "Savoy Truffle" around the Clapton sweet tooth.
But there's nothing sweet tonight about Clapton's rendering of "Cocaine." His fingers in snake-like motions, he spits out the words of the song. One wonders if he's thinking about the great guitars he sold to feed his drug habit of two long decades ago.
Round 14: "Layla" (Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs album, 1970; written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon). Framed by a shadowy stage and a protracted instrumental build-up, Clapton crowns the show with "Layla," his twenty-year-old torch song of love and pain.
Based on a story by the Persian writer Nizami, the number is more than Clapton's magnum opus: it is the proclamation nailed to the monastery door of his talent. With a 7:07 recorded time in the country-fair airplane hangout that is rock 'n' roll record-making, "Layla" is a 707.
Demons of despair howl through the bones of the song. It is a soul-bearing piece in the epiphanic manner of Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" and Lennon's first solo album. If we may extend the Dickens' parallel, it is a song that will last the ages: A Clapton Carol — with a special wink to the Ghost of Clapton Past.
In the song, Layla has her pleading lover on his knees, and in concert Captain Crossroads has his music lovers on their feet. He round-houses the most walloping vocals of the night in a jagged rural drawl — plays the guitar with all his heart — and the high sky of Madison Square Garden becomes a firmament of invisible sound stars.
Back on earth, I stood at the edge of the stage and got the feeling that the edge is as far as this particular guitarist ever allows anyone to go.
It was not surprising to get that feeling during "Layla" because it is the song that drives into the essential mystery of Clapton's art. Indeed, for all his fame and all that has been written about him, his great guitar gift remains wrapped in mystery, as graspable as the sea. Congenetically, his best songs (like "Layla") try to tell us that life has an unknowable heart.
After laying the last brick in his blues-rock monument, Clapton bows deeply, takes off his guitar, waves, bows again, and hugs his bandmates. Then the whole group joins arm-in-arm and bows together.
They have much to bow about. It has not been a night of just blues, but a rainbow arc of blues and rock and pop and jazz. As for the group's leader, the super-guitarist, he seems proud of himself without being full of himself. Classy Clapton scampers offstage.
Round 15: Blues Solo Improvisation.
The arena draped in black, thousands of ignited matches and lighters tap yellow dots and dashes to signal to Clapton the people's appreciation.
In the past fourteen songs, they've witnessed a greater range of authentic blues than another Garden audience got at a concert years ago, in 1983, when Clapton played here with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Now the assembly of 20,000 is standing and clapping and asking for another taste or two.
A rabid-ripping guitar chord from stage left signals back to the congregation that this showcase night of music is not over. The pop icon pops the Garden ionosphere. A single spotlight laser-arrows Clapton in a black shirt, his white jacket off, hovering over his electric wand and breaking into a hot blues solo.
The man looks pained; the eyes are bolted shut. His face is wearing what his instrument is playing. One wonders what his mind is thinking. Where inside of himself does he find the blues?
Is he remembering that night in 1980 in Madison, Wisconsin, when he barely made it through a show because an ulcer was about to burst into his pancreas? Is he recalling the death of his grandfather of cancer in 1970? Is he remembering the day in 1974 he told his friend George Harrison that he was in love with Harrison's wife?
Or is he thinking he'd like to have a cigarette?
Wherever the mind might be, the fingers are on the guitar and spinning out notes in loose-thrown cross-rhythmic star-showers. Standing alone in the mountainous pitch-black superstructure, Clapton seems like an explorer. Those educated fingers of his surfeit the rip-up solo with blues that are old and cutting and deep — saber-toothed blues.
Round 16: "Crossroads" (Wheels of Fire album, 1968; written by Robert Johnson, arranged by Eric Clapton).
At the last so-high solo note, Clapton is re-joined by his band and he spearheads them into Robert Johnson's classic, "Crossroads."
If "Layla" is the heart of Clapton, then "Crossroads" is his spirit. One recalls that, at his toughest career crossroads, he has concentrated his way through. No matter how enfeebling the problem, he has been resilient. That's the Clapton spirit — ever at a crossroads, be it artistic, physical, emotional, or spiritual — and ever rock-solid.
Along with being a song, Crossroads is of course the name of Clapton's six-album compilation from two years back. Intrinsically, it is not so much a compilation as it is a big box of mood — rock 'n' roll's War and Peace in scope and depth.
Well, tonight, E.C. chooses the song/collection title to go his deepest. Just about every number of the evening has tendered the favor of a Clapton solo. Now he reaches way way way down to tear out the bluest blues from a long-ago Mississippi Delta.
The themes turn on wasted emotions. But the technique is all no-wasted motion. The fingers swift-lip the guitar as Clapton wrings every last trickle of blues tears from the instrument.
With each new stance — here facing the crowd head-on, there stepping back, here hunching over the guitar, there looking heavenward — it's like looking upon a series of Rolling Stone covers on the History of British Blues.
At his most intense during the "Crossroads" solo, Clapton could not pour himself into that guitar anymore unless he slashed his wrists. He doesn't seem conscious of anything except his fingers and the guitar and the rhythm in the room and the sounds pulsating out of his own aura.
When he enters the music completely, his body and the guitar and even the sounds are as camouflage. He seems less like a person than a silhouette, a blue silhouette. He has the texture of a dream at such moments.
The substance is the feeling he's putting out. And that of course is not onstage for the eye, or out in the air for the ear, but, rather, deep down inside the man, down along that homesick boulevard which some call the soul.
By song's end, can anyone in the place wonder why Clapton is considered the strongest link in the blue chain that runs through the heart of rock 'n' roll?
Round 17: "Sunshine of Your Love" (Disraeli Gears album, 1967; written by Jack Bruce, Pete Brown and Eric Clapton).
For his departing encore notes, the choirmaster puts a hot guitar poker under Cream's greatest hit.
Over the years, the number has established itself as a kind of "First Reader" for many people who play electric guitar. It's the first tune that about half of them (maybe more) ever learn. The song has thus become a kind of riffy Rosetta Stone in that it furnishes the key to unlocking three different musical languages: rock, blues, and pop.
Presently, Clapton's fingers flick across the tune so fast, they're more like shadows than flesh and blood. At one point during his "Sunshine" solo, Clapton stood directly in front of me in a coiled stance at the lip of the stage.
I closed my eyes for a few seconds, the better to hear, and suddenly it was 1968 and I was in my teens and on the Madison Square Garden stage was an English band called Cream. I could even envisage the old microphones that came down from the ceiling and were usually used for announcing prize fights.
This was back when rock 'n' roll was 95% of my life and all that mattered was who had a new album out and who was playing where and when. The guitar player's hair was longer, so was mine. But here's the kicker: the music felt the same — good fresh rock 'n' roll.
Since we own nothing permanently or with certainty except our memories, it was incredible to have mine brought so perfectly into the present. The moment was magic. The new album may be called Journeyman, but it was "Sunshine" that took me on some journey, man.
When I opened my eyes at ringside to look again upon Eric Clapton a few feet away, I felt a seamless loyalty to this man and his work. I also realized it was true that Slowhand was so fast, he could steal the seconds off a clock.
Clapton's last note of the night whirls out into the galvanic airspace of Madison Square Garden. Ripples of applause make their way to the front of the stage in big curling waves. Our Mr. Eric Clapton takes off his guitar, bows, and leans it against an amp. He joins the band, arm-in-arm once again, and they take several group bows.
The bandleader had given his musicians plenty of chances to show their stuff tonight, but mainly he kept center-stage—definitely what the audience wanted.
In terms of material, there were sixteen tunes and one blues solo. Half-a-dozen numbers on the set list—over a third of the show—were off the Journeyman album. Four songs were from albums of the late 60s; two from the early 70s; three from the late 70s (the Slowhand album); and seven from the late 80s.
What a beginning, tonight, to the last decade of the 20th Century: to see that sensitive art can work so fine with advanced technology; to see that personal mood can walk hand-in-hand with worldwide electronic communication; to see that so many people of so different ages and backgrounds can come together so pleasantly.
From the first whine of Clapton's guitar to its last sigh, the man was often excellent, rarely extravagant, sometimes exotic, never exhibitionist, always exciting. Captain Crossroads once again proved himself no different from anybody else with two eyes, two ears, two feet, two possessed hands and two million admirers.
He seems to be getting better with age—beating the grays with the blues. Plainly, he's more of a touchstone than a tombstone. He keeps doing treasurable shows like this, and he'll graduate from living legend to genuine miracle by 2001. But it's 1990 and what we can say for sure is that tonight he shot for the heavens and got 'em: E.C. as E.T.
The winner and still champion—still the cream of rock guitar—Eric Patrick Clapton with a slow hand to the chin of great expectations. How the Dickens to characterize such a performance in a single, long-after-midnight, finishing-off phrase?
Call it a technical knockout.