Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eric Clapton, Guitar Hero - Mar 27, 2007 @ GM Place

By: Terry Lowe

Eric Clapton is a living legend, and that is reason enough to go and see him, even if his work has been a bit lacklustre in recent years. Christine told me that the show was sold out (15,000 people, I was told later), but a ticket had been set aside for a SwankTrendz reviewer. I claimed that ticket and found my way inside with 10 minutes to spare.

I knew the show was to start at 8:30 PM, and was being presented by House Of Blues. The place was jammed with people, some of whom were young classic rock fans, but most middle-aged (with kids). I saw a brisk trade in $60 T-shirts at the concession stands. “Okay, it's going to one of those shows,” I thought: one that begins exactly on time – which I like – and ends exactly on time, and will probably be a tightly scripted crowd-pleaser.

I was right about that, but enjoyed it nevertheless. Good band, and a good seat, on the aisle 16 rows up from the front left corner of the stage. And very close to a big video projection screen, which came in handy for those close-up details.

Mr Clapton and the band appeared on stage at 8:35, picked up their guitars and launched into a succession of 1970s Derek and the Dominoes hits: “Tell The Truth”, “Key To The Highway”, and “Got To Get Better In a Little While.” EC appeared relaxed and casual, wearing a dark grey short-sleeved shirt, jeans, suede deck shoes, and a few days’ worth of grey stubble. He played his signature black Stratocaster throughout.


The band included a solid rhythm guitarist, a rocking bass / drum team, one organist and one electric pianist, and two lovely buxom backup singers who swayed in unison, and who were given chairs so they could rest during the “Shut up and play yer guitar” bits, of which there were many.

The sound quality was surprisingly good, given that the venue is a small stadium designed to host hockey games. I could hear everything clearly, and the mix was excellent.

When they launched into “Little Wing,” out came the cigarette lighters, held up aflame. Certainly not as many as there would have thirty years ago, but it certainly took me back. There was a lot of smoke in the air, and the noticeable smell of marijuana now and then.

That piece drew a semi-standing ovation; this crowd was clearly there to be pleased. “I Shot The Sheriff” drew another one, but what I noticed during EC’s extended improvised solo was that he still has it: his playing is astonishingly good, and very fluid. The camera operators gave us many close-up of the legendary Slowhand bending strings and dancing across the frets. He’s a magician with that guitar.

A refreshing sit-down acoustic set followed, with EC playing a solo six-string first, then joined by the remainder of the band, with the drummer playing a box that he was sitting on. This set included some songs unknown to me, although if the set list from last night's show in Seattle that I found on matches tonight’s (and so far, it has), those would be “Driftin” and “Outside Woman Blues” by blues legend Robert Johnson. Followed by “Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out” and “Running On Faith,” during which the rhythm guitarist picked up his Strat, and the volume was turned up, and the stools cleared away.

A blazing version of “Motherless Children” followed, and to me, that was the highlight of the night. Inspired playing; and from there on it was just Greatest Hits to the end.

First, though, they had to play an extended blues-based piece, to showcase the solo abilities of the two keyboard players, the bass player, and, yes, the drummer. Playing blues-based rock, especially in stadiums, is risky. There's always the danger of slipping into formulaic or, worse, bombastic cliches. Clapton’s band was never bombastic, but there were formulaic here: all of your favourite “big rock stunts” delivered in one piece. My attention wandered. I noticed on the close-up video screen that EC's wristwatch was set an hour ahead. I admired the swaying backup singers.

The crowd ate it up, though, and wanted more. He could do no wrong, in their view. Proof of this came next: “Wonderful Tonight,” a song I've always found maudlin and tiresome. But out came the lighters again, almost as if on cue.

And then they played “Layla.”

And the crowd went nuts. They roared and stomped. I was curious to see if they’d play the extended version, with the duelling lead guitars. They did, but first had to wait for a standing ovation to settle down halfway through. And when they finally finished, the crowd gave them another ovation.

When the stage lights died thereafter, the crowd responded by making more noise than the band had all night. They wanted that encore, and of course, they got it. The time now was 10:10 PM, and I figured it was probably going to be “Cocaine,” and I was right again. They turned that into another Big Stadium Rock number (extended version), EC playing a white Strat this time. I figured that was probably it, so grabbed my coat and took off. Never could stand that song.

It’s a curious phenomenom, this adulation of 1970s music, often by people who weren't even born when it was originally released (and who thus cannot possibly appreciate its original context). Eric Clapton is known as a shy man, at times bewildered by and uncomfortable with the success his talent has brought him. Perhaps, then, he is content to deliver the seamless Greatest Hits package we saw there. The fans are certainly happy to get it.

Overall, I was glad to see him, and the band more often than not kept my interest. But that was due more to EC’s amazing playing than anything else; it would be wonderful to see him in a more relaxed setting, where he could bend our ears like he bends those strings.

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