LOCAL LIVE! In Denver, About Denver, Musically Denver!!!!
Eric Clapton/Steve Winwood June 21, 2009 Pepsi Center, Denver
It’s been nearly 40 years since the super group Blind Faith recorded its one and only album, went on a brief tour and then disintegrated like a Spinal Tap drummer. But now the co-leaders of that band, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood are back together and on the road with a tour that revives a bit of Blind Faith, surveys each musician’s post Blind Faith work and throws in a generous helping of the blues, just because it’s good for ya.
The band kicked off with one of the lesser known tunes from the Blind Faith album, “Had to Cry Today” but it’s one with a classic late 60s infectious bluesy lick. Clapton and Winwood walked onstage together, both with Stratocasters strapped on and got down to it. Winwood is more known for his keyboard playing than guitar playing, but “Had to Cry Today” gave him the opportunity to trade guitar licks with the master. While not many guitarists are at the level of Clapton, Winwood’s solos held up just fine. Plus, I’ve always admired anybody that would put on a guitar and go on stage with Eric Clapton.
Next on the program was “Low Down,” the first of three J.J. Cale tunes in the set (along with “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”). Those selections are due to the influence of Clapton who’s been a J.J. Cale fan for decades and recorded an album with him in 2006 (“Road to Escondido”). After “Low Down” and “After Midnight” the band got back to Blind Faith with “Presence of the Lord.” Unlike the rarely performed “Had to Cry Today” that one has appeared in Clapton sets off and on for several decades. “Sleeping in the Ground” followed and was the first foray of the evening into some serious blues. That tune was written by Sam Myers and was performed by Blind Faith back in the day (or in this case, just a half a day). The deluxe version of the Blind Faith album includes a version of that song recorded at a Hyde Park concert. The other two Blind Faith songs for the evening were “Well Alright” which was actually a Buddy Holly song, and “Can’t Find My Home” another staple of Clapton’s over the years.
The band played three songs from Winwood’s iconic band Traffic, the first of which was “Glad,” a jazz-fusiony instrumental from the album “John Barley Corn Must Die.” That’s a tune that Winwood and Clapton have both performed in concert in the past. A few songs later, the band played “Pearly Queen,” somewhat more obscure, but still a good rockin’ Traffic track. The other Traffic song, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” closed the show. That one is generally slower and spacier than the other two, but is definitely a Traffic classic. Since it was the end of the show, they kicked up the tempo for part of the song and got into something that almost had a rockabilly feel; what a great contrast.
As has become traditional over the last several Clapton tours, the band put away the electric instruments and sat down for a few acoustic blues tunes a little over half way through the set. That actually started with Winwood’s solo version of “Georgia On My Mind,” in tribute to the late Ray Charles. Winwood accompanied himself on a Hammond B-3 organ. Next, Clapton, along with Willie Weeks on bass and Abe Laboriel on drums came on stage for an acoustic version of Driftin’, a tune Clapton did solo on the last tour. The acoustic blues continued with “How Long Blues,” one Clapton recorded on 1994’s “From the Cradle” album. The rest of the band came back on stage for that one. Then, the band went into a tune no Clapton show is seemingly complete without, Layla. Instead of the soaring guitar anthem, we heard the acoustic version similar to the version on the “Unplugged” CD. After all those blues, a changeup was needed and “Can’t Find My Home” was the perfect selection; not really a blues tune, but subdued and perfect for the end of the acoustic portion of the show. A highlight of the evening was “Voodoo Chile” which closed the main set before the encore. Clapton let loose on this one, paying homage to the Hendrix legend.
A disappointment for me was the inclusion of some post-Traffic Winwood songs, “No Face, No Name, No Number” and “Split Decision.” Because of the brilliance of Traffic, I really tried to give Winwood’s solo stuff a chance. But try as I might, I just have never been able to stomach it. It just hits me as insipid, vapid. Eventually, I started to avoid it whenever possible; kind of like tuning out a Preparation H commercial. Of course the selection of “Forever Man” wasn’t much better. The Denver Post’s reviewer thought it sounded like the theme song from a 70s TV show even though it’s from the 80s. At least we didn’t have to suffer through yet another rendition of “Wonderful Tonight.” Another minus was the sound. Part of the problem was simply structural; it’s hard to get a good bass sound in a hockey rink and so Willie Weeks’ bass work was lost somewhere among the Avalanche championship pennants dangling from the ceiling. The vocal mix was poor for the first few songs so that whenever the singer began, his voice was lost in the mix for the first several seconds. Fortunately the crew fixed that problem after just a couple tunes.
But let’s not dwell on the negative and instead focus on the reason we’re all here: Clapton’s guitar playing. While Winwood played some guitar, he spent about two thirds of his time behind the keyboards leaving Clapton as the sole guitarist in the band. That hasn’t happened for many a tour. In fact, I think the last time that happened to any consistent degree was the Derek and the Dominoes days in the early 70s. I’ve said it before, but I don’t mind repeating it: nobody plays guitar like Eric Clapton and it was great to hear him stretch out all night long and rip one solo after another. He’s particularly adept at the blues and his playing in that context is the most emotionally satisfying you’ll ever hear.
Michelle John and Sharon White on backing vocals having been touring with Clapton for some time, having been to Denver with him the last time in March 2007. Chris Stainton on keyboards and Willie Weeks on bass were also along last time. A new member of the band is drummer Abe Laboriel. He played with Paul McCartney’s touring band for several years and Sunday night, he played like a man with something to prove. Stainton was another highlight, laying down several piano solos, particularly on the slow blues tunes that nearly bent you in two with a combination of agony and ecstasy. Winwood, for his part, sounded as good as ever. Now 61, his voice sounds exactly like it did in 1969.
Overall, the show was another first class Clapton performance. With all the soloing he did as the lone guitarist most of the time and the added dimension of Winwood and his Traffic influence, the current tour highlights the best of Clapton and adds some new and welcome aspects. Clapton is now 64 and each time he comes through town I worry that it may be the last. Certainly this could be it, but he seems healthy, his playing and singing are still in fine form and he’s still at it which means that he must like it at least a little bit. B.B. King, now over 80, is still on the road. Clapton has always emulated guys like that. Maybe there are another half dozen Denver shows in the future.
Had to Cry Today
Presence of the Lord
Sleeping in the Ground
Tough Luck Blues
No Face, No Name, No Number
Georgia On My Mind
How Long Blues
Can't Find My Way Home
Dear Mr. Fantasy
Eric Clapton - guitar, vocals Steve Winwood - vocals, Hammond B3, piano, guitar Chris Stainton - keyboards Willie Weeks - bass Abe Laboriel, Jr. - drums Michelle John - backing vocals Sharon White - backing vocals