Eric Clapton's March 17th concert in Austin, Texas – the third date on his latest North American tour – was a career overview that covered all of his major turning points as a guitarist and most of his commercial successes: Cream, Derek and the Dominos, the Seventies solo hits and his matured resurgence in the Nineties with the MTV Unplugged performance and album. But the long heart of this two-hour show at the Frank Erwin Center was four songs associated with the pioneering, star-crossed Mississippi bluesman who set Clapton on his path, Robert Johnson.
Deep into the set list, after a seated, acoustic stretch that included Clapton's 1977 ballad "Wonderful Tonight" and his down-gear Unplugged rearrangement of the Dominos' "Layla," Clapton strapped on a Stratocaster and pulled the trigger on Johnson's "Stones in My Passway," quoting his own Cream-era riff from Johnson's "Crossroads" but with more Delta syntax. "Love in Vain," best known in the Rolling Stones' plaintive 1969 recording, was taken as a crisp electric shuffle, followed by "Crossroads" itself, with Clapton – who long abandoned the supercharged Les Paul-guitar tone of the Cream adaption – soloing with a spiked, treble attack closer to the one he first turned to in the Dominos.
The homage to Johnson concluded with a fixture of recent Clapton tours, "Little Queen of Spades." At one point in the extended jamming center of the tune, Clapton fell back into his self-effacing-sideman mode, giving generous solo space to his longtime pianist Chris Stainton. But the guitarist's torrid, opening choruses, improvising against the earthy churn of drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Willie Weeks, drew a standing ovation – affirmation of Clapton's ability, two weeks before his 68th birthday, to elevate and electrify at the same time he honors his priests and sources.
At the Crossroads
Clapton's current tour arrived in Austin in the wake of the SXSW conference and festival, as attendees emptied the city and locals were running on fumes. He paid homage to the city in words – "It's nice to be in a music town – I can feel it" – and action, inviting guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, older brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and a Texas monster in his own right, to pick some Freddy King-style fire in Albert Collins' "Black Cat Bone." Clapton also let his Dallas-born supporting guitarist Doyle Bramhall II take a lengthy slide break in the Dominos' "Tell the Truth," evoking the challenge and incandescence the late guitarist Duane Allman brought to that short-lived band.
But the valedictory tone of the evening – a life in blues and guitar playing, well-lived and emotionally cross-examined – was set at the very front, in "Hello Old Friend" from Clapton's 1976 album, No Reason to Cry, and the surprising resurrection of a later obscurity, "My Father's Eyes" on 1998's Pilgrim. Leading an eight-piece band (including a pedal-steel guitarist) in gentleman-laborer dress (jeans, gray shirt, black vest and glasses), Clapton looked nothing like a guitar hero. His body went rigid and his features froze in eyes-shut concentration when his playing was most physical: the funky wah-wah-soaked riffing in the Dominos' "Got to Get Better in a Little While"; the sharp biting class of his phrasing in the run-out solo of "I Shot the Sheriff." Clapton also gave big chunks of the spotlight to others, especially organist Paul Carrack, who sang his two lucky strikes, "Tempted" (his hit with Squeeze) and "How Long" (the one with the mid-Seventies pub-rock combo Ace).
There was also an intriguing restlessness to the way Clapton addressed his past, one that did not sound like that of a man who recently told Rolling Stone that he intends to retire from major touring. (He told me the same thing more than a decade ago, to no apparent effect.) Clapton didn't solo until the third song, "Tell the Truth," but his shrieking phrases and slalom runs were muscular and concise, firm declarations of undiminished facility and enthusiasm. He revived Unplugged's "Tears in Heaven" with a subtle, effective jolt: a slight offbeat in Jordan's drumming, which added a warm, reggae lilt to the requiem. And just as Clapton seemed done for the night, after an obligatory "Sunshine of Your Love" during the encore, he cued Carrack into an organ vamp that became Joe Cocker's "High Time We Went," a 1972 Ray Charles-style rave-up that Stainton co-wrote with the singer.
Clapton's tour will bring him to New York's Madison Square Garden on April 12th and 13th, where he will host a multitude of guitarists for a two-day edition of his Crossroads festival and shootout. The way he played Sunday suggests he will be ready for whatever his idols, friends and disciples throw at him; will give better than that in return; and is still a long way from sunset.