Eric Clapton eased into the opening night of his tour in support of the just-released “Old Sock” at US Airways Center on Thursday, March 14, gently strumming acoustic guitar on “Hello Old Friend,” a laid-back track from “No Reason to Cry,” at the helm of a nine-piece band.
That mellow vibe continued on “My Father’s Eyes,” a reggae-flavored easy-listening hit from “Pilgrim.” But he’d strapped on an electric by the third song, “Tell the Truth” by Derek and the Dominos, squeezing out sparks on the first of several awe-inspiring solos, a series of fluid, well-phrased runs that really hit its stride when Clapton leaned into the bent notes at the end of certain lines and let them ring out. There was no shortage of stunning guitar work, of course, both by Clapton and second guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, by the time they’d closed the proper set with an epic “Cocaine” and then returned to start the encore strong with “Sunshine of Your Love.”
The man has assembled quite the cast of players for this tour, from the undeniable rhythm section of drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Willie Weeks, to Paul Carrack of Squeeze on Hammond B-3 organ and piano. On several occasions, the groove that rhythm section worked was as impressive as the soloing (see “Tell the Truth” and “Black Cat Bone,” which really swung). And Bramhall more than held his own against the master, while those female backup singers, Sharon White and Michelle John, added goosebump-raising gospel-flavored soul to the proceedings. They pretty much carried the vocals on “I Shot the Sheriff” and their wailing made the “Old Sock” original “Gotta Get Over” an unexpected highlight of the early set.
Clapton was good about sharing the spotlight, allowing for excellent solos from Bramhall, Carrack, pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz (who tore it up on “Black Cat Bone” by Albert Collins) and a second keyboard player, Chris Stainton. That also meant Carrack was able to sing a few, including Squeeze’s “Tempted,” Ace’s “How Long” and an encore-closing cover of the old Joe Cocker hit, “High Time We Went” (which Stainton co-wrote).
Early highlights included a slinkier reading of “I Shot the Sheriff,” which featured an epic Clapton solo that ended with him mirroring the melody on his way to restating the opening riff really high on the neck of his guitar, and a wah-guitar-driven rendition of “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” a funky, gospel-flavored gem by Derek and the Dominos.
Clapton returned to acoustic guitar for a mid-show mini-set of quieter material that started strong with “Driftin’ Blues” before making its way through a version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that sounded more like Bessie Smith’s rendition than the one by Derek and the Dominos, a breezy, reggae-flavored “Tears In Heaven,” “Goodnight, Irene” and “Wonderful Tonight” (with Bramhall supplying the signature guitar line and Clapton recasting the tale in future tense for no apparent reason).
After Carrack took the mic for “How Long” with Clapton supplying a really nice solo, the concert turned into a Robert Johnson tribute, including a hard-grooving slide-guitar-driven “Stones in My Passway,” a swaggering “Love in Vain,” Clapton’s Cream staple “Crossroads,” which earned the most enthuastic audience reaction of the night to that point, and some of Clapton’s sweetest bends on “Little Queen of Spades.”
They pulled out of the Johnson mini-set with “Layla,” White and John taking the high notes on the chorus hook and Clapton turning in another epic solo. A pregnant pause at the end of his last solo made it feel like they were skipping the piano coda, but they didn’t, to their credit. There were moments were they seemed a little lost on that part, but this was the opening night of the tour, and they more than made up for the sense that they hadn’t quite practiced that section enough with moments of transcendence. Clapton could closed the set with that. Instead, he stuck around for “Cocaine,” stretching it to twice the length it is on “Slowhand” with rousing gospel vocals, yet another brilliant Clapton solo, a Carrack organ solo and a spotlight-stealing explosion of notes from Stainton working his way up the keys with a combination of reckless abandon and savage intensity.
Starting the encore with one of Cream’s best songs was an excellent way to build on the momentum of those last two numbers. And “High Time We Went” was a spirited (and playful) way to say goodnight. Just when you thought it was over, Jordan brought it back to life with some powerful drumming, Clapton grinning as he waved goodbye the final time the chorus rolled around, as though to say, “No, really, it’s high time we went.”
The Wallflowers opened the show with a well-received set that included “6th Avenue Heartache” and seemed to peak with a rousing rendition of the even hit “One Headlight.” But then, Jakob Dylan took it up a notch with a spirited cover of Elvis Costello’s cover of Nick Lowe’s Brinsley Schwarz song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” before closing with another track from “Bringing Down the Horse,” “The Difference.”
Also, Dylan’s really looking like his dad these days. Of course, it may just be the hat.
Hello Old Friend
My Father’s Eyes
Tell the Truth
Gotta Get Over
Black Cat Bone
Got to Get Better in a Little While
I Shot the Sheriff
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Tears in Heaven
Stones in My Passway
Love in Vain
Little Queen of Spades
Sunshine of Your Love
High Time We Went
By Ed Masley The Republic | azcentral.com
PHOTO BY: Cheryl Evans/The Arizona Republic