Sept. 14, I saw “God,” and he played a mean guitar.
I’m not talking about MY God. I’m sure the Almighty, being omnipotent, can not only “play a guitar like ringin’ a bell,” but certainly much better.
No, that night I heard an artist who played in two of the seminal British blues-rock bands, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, and the Yardbrds. Who co-founded three important rock bands, each of them arguably “supergroups”: Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos. After which he had a very successful solo career. Who many rock fans would consider to be a Guitar God, if not an actual god. Misplaced priorities …
The occasion was Eric Clapton’s concert at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, tickets for which my bride bought for me (I think) as a Christmas present, and which Jeanne did not want to attend. So my “date” was my friend of 50-plus years, Ken Stone of Minneapolis; Ken, AKA the Coach, AKA the Okie from Skokie, drove Yellow Cab in Madison back when I did.
Ken is a serious student of the guitar, currently taking lessons in blues guitar and playing at one or more jam sessions a week. I expected he could offer a deeper perspective on one of the guitar greats of blues, pop and rock, and he did.
One of the things we discussed while waiting for Slowhand to take the stage was, which songs would he play from his 60-plus-year career? I expected to hear stuff from Cream, the Dominos, some blues covers and lots from his 50-year solo career.
(The opening act was Jimmy Vaughn, older brother of the late, great, lamented blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn. Jimmy played a nice set — his band, which included a bodacious horn section, was tight and rockin’ — but Ken and I agreed that his voice is failing him. He did come back to join Clapton’s band for their encore.)
So, when Clapton’s set started with a semi-familiar, skirling organ riff, Ken and I looked at each other, both wondering, what song from Clapton’s oeuvre is THAT? But when the vocal kicked in, it hit me — the Band’s “The Shape I’m In”! Didn’t see that coming — nor the next number, another Robbie Robertson composition, “It Makes No Difference,” from one of the Band’s later albums, which I don’t own. (But listening to the original since, it just tears me up — Richard Manuel’s lead vocal, Robertson’s lyrics, the ensemble playing — oh, my! Going to have to get that album …)
Things went more as expected after those two, with Clapton and the band doing two blues chestnuts, “Key to the Highway” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” Followed by an overwhelming take on the Bob Marley and the Wailers’ number that was a No. 1 hit for Clapton solo; this version of “I Shot the Sheriff” — a song I liked better in Marley’s take, originally —left me gasping for breath, it was that intense.
Then Slowhand changed the pace 180, segueing into an acoustic set. That started with two slow blues numbers, covers of older songs. He followed that with “They Call Me the Breeze,” which most people identify with the Lynyrd Skynyrd cover, but was actually written and first recorded by the late J.J. Cale — an artist who Clapton esteemed, to the point that he did an album with him and borrowed his style on several recordings.
Clapton wrapped up the acoustic segment with two of his best-known, self-penned songs, “Layla” (the title cut from the one-and-only Derek and the Dominos album, but done in the fashion of his MTV Unplugged version) and “Tears in Heaven.” The reaction of many in the audience to the latter number — whoops and whistles — left me scratching my head: Do those folks know what the lyrics are about? The man’s four-year-old son fell to his death from a upstairs window! Respectful applause would be a more appropriate response …
Clapton and the band wrapped up the pre-encore show with another electric set, which started with two of his own compositions, “Tearing Us Apart” and “Wonderful Tonight” (the latter, like “Layla,” written about his — and George Harrison’s — ex-wife, Patti Boyd). Then came a couple blues chestnuts, Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” (the closest he came to a Cream number) and T-Bone Walker’s “They Call It Stormy Monday but Tuesday’s Just as Bad.”
The last “regularly-scheduled” song was another tip-of-the-hat to J.J. Cale, “Cocaine,” which was a Top 40 hit for Clapton. The band teased the encore, making it seem like they wouldn’t come back, but returned to do “Ain’t It High Time We Went,” Clapton handing off the lead vocal to the organist, Paul Carrack (who had messed with our heads by tacking the main organ riff from Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” onto the tail end of “Tears in Heaven.”)
Ken and I looked at each other and asked, “Who did that song?” It came to both of us, separately, overnight: Joe Cocker! Included, no doubt, because Clapton’s pianist that night was Chris Stainton — who played in Cocker’s Grease Band, as well as Spooky Tooth and other groups. Stainton has been working on and off with Clapton since 1979.
Carrack also has worked with Clapton previous to this tour, sang lead for Ace (big hit, “How Long”), Squeeze and Mike + the Mechanics and played in the backing band of Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters. Also in the band that night was backing guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, another musician with a 50-plus-year career of supporting bigger-name musicians, including Clapton and Waters, on tour and in the studio, but also with some accomplishments of his own.
Clapton’s name is all over the tour and each concert, but he shared the spotlight graciously, giving one or more of those musicians and/or the others in the band solos on pretty much every number. Unprepossessing in denim shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, and looking more like a retired accountant or somebody’s grandpa, the guitar great also took time to give a soft-spoken shout-out to Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the suburban Twin Cities treatment center that helped him overcome his serious heroin addiction.
All in all, it was a great concert, a look at one of rock’s giants towards the tail end of his career, but in many ways still in his prime. If/when I revisit the “my favorite concerts” list, this one is going to bump some of the those near the top down a notch.