Sunday, May 26, 2013

Eric Clapton live at the Royal Albert Hall: God comes home. Again.

Photo: Ron Kirby
Call him what you like, call him "Clapped-Out", call him Slowhand, even call him the Almighty, Eric Clapton is still at heart a blues guitarist whom, if you're into blues guitar, outshines most others.

Purists will say he's a charlatan because he doesn't use all six strings, or that he sold out when he went country, or that he swapped heroin and booze for Ferrari and Armani and lost his credibility in the process.

But at 68, the somewhat shy superstar who walks on stage at the Royal Albert Hall with the sort of brief, awkward wave you give an unfamiliar neighbour, is still - when he allows himself - as thunderous a player as he was when a cheeky graffitist dawbed "Clapton is God" on a Tube station wall, 45 years ago.

That wave - repeated with equal abbreviation for the encore - is as much crowd interaction as you get with Eric. There are no rambling tales, jokes or orchestrated crowd singalongs; applauding fans get a cursory "thankyew!" after each song and then it's on with the next one. This isn't, by the way, a detached rock legend failing to engage with the faithful: to a certain extent, this is still the diffident Surbiton schoolboy who learned his craft busking, under-age, in the riverside pubs of Kingston-upon-Thames. Before, obviously, becoming the world's most talked about British guitarist.

We are here for the fifth night of his seven-night residency at the Albert Hall, a venue Clapton has played almost 200 times since his debut there in 1964, and a venue that has become regarded as his spiritual home.

It is, though, an odd place for rock deity to ply their trade. Despite being more ornate Victorian wedding cake than rock amphitheatre, with its plush red velvet boxes and debenture seating, its surprisingly low stage and modest 4,000 capacity gives an intimacy that, perhaps, veers closest to the suburban saloon bars Clapton would travel by Green Line bus, from rural Ripley in Surrey, to play.

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It is still an incongruous venue to hear the music of the Mississippi Delta. But it is still a joy to hear it. Clapton has, of course, come a long, long way from churning out Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy songs on his Hoyer acoustic, bought for £2 by his grandmother in Bell Music on the Ewell Road in Tolworth. Which is now a hairdressers and a cafe.

This run at the Albert Hall - part of a tour to promote his enjoyably easy-going album Old Sock and celebrating his 50th year as a professional musician - condenses into one 22-song set the variety of his repertoire: the bluesy ones, the soulful ones, the quiet ones and the sort of fretboard workouts that started all the fuss in the first place with The Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream.

Tonight, however, the somewhat sedate figure on stage seems a world away from the British Blues demon of the 60s, the 70s rock casualty, or the recovering playboy of the 80s. Throughout all these eras, all five decades of his coin-earning years, Clapton has been a sturdy professional, surrounded by the similarly proficient. Tonight he has with him the superb Paul Carrack - Britain's best white soul voice, bar none - on organ and vocals, longtime supporting keyboard player Chris Stainton, young buck Doyle Bramhall II (a ringer for the frizzy-haired 1967-version Clapton) on guitar (and who takes his fair share of soloing), Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Willie Weeks on bass and Steve Jordan on drums.

For those who go back a while with Clapton's work, the opening number of Hello Old Friend, from 1976's No Reason To Cry, is a bold and refreshingly unexpected beginning to the set.

My Father's Eyes, which follows, is a mere whippersnapper at only 15 years old, but the guitarist stretches back even further with his third track of the night, resurrecting Tell The Truth from the Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs album recorded under the guise of Derek and the Dominos. Those less familiar with Clapton's oldest canon might be fooled into thinking they're listening to new tracks, such is the fresh energy this band applies to such old material.

Gotta Get Over actually sounds like it was first written and recorded in the early 70s, despite being one of two new compositions included on Old Sock, while Black Cat Bone messes completely with chronology - a choppy blues first cut in the mid-80s by Albert Collins, as opposed to those in the set with considerably older heritage.

Then we're back to raid the Dominos era with the uplifting Got To Get Better In A Little While, here given a hefty gospel treatment that allows backing singers Michelle John and Sharon White to open the taps fully.

Carrack gets his first chance of the evening to showcase that voice, taking the lead vocal on the much-covered standard Come Rain Or Come Shine, before handing back to Clapton for the first hair-on-neck 'moment' of the evening: Badge.

The trouble with listening to legends playing the material that first established their legend status is that familiarity - especially for a 45-year-old song like Badge - can inhibit any fresh listening. How can the Stones go through playing Jumpin' Jack Flash and Satisfaction still, or McCartney with Yesterday, after all these years is beyond me (revenue, I suspect, helps), but Clapton still manages to make Badge sound box-fresh. Over the years I must have heard that solo - including trying to play it myself - and the familiar V-IV-II-I-V riff thousands of times. Clapton will have played it even more, and yet he continues to effortlessly put passion through that Stratocaster even now.

It is perfectly understandable, then, that we reach the "Seated" part of the evening. Electrified instruments are swapped for acoustic and chairs are brought on for the band as we cruise through a lengthy, seven-song sequence of gentler, 'unplugged' numbers - starting with the 1940s blues hit Driftin', the venerable Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out and Paul Carrack singing his own composition It Ain't Easy (To Love You).

Photo: Linda Wnek

Layla, which you'll remember is an agitated song about infatuation, is reduced to something of a cabaret shuffle. A shame, really. The MTV Unplugged version was an entertaining novelty but should have been left as a one-off before returning to the full-blooded version.

Tears In Heaven - which must still be a painful song for Clapton to reproduce, given it's inspiration - is given a frivolous Caribbean lilt that defies the tragedy behind it. And then Wonderful Tonight, that contractually-obliged, dewy-eyed wedding reception perennial, is delivered with the only bespoke alteration being Bramhall getting to play the famous slowed down country riff beloved of amateur guitarists and loathed by those violently indifferent to the song's insipidness in fairly equal measure.

Appropriately, as the music stops the chairs are taken away, the band blasts into more vintage fare: Blues Power. A 12-bar boogie from Clapton's eponymous solo debut in 1970, it was recorded in that purple period of rock music between 1967 and 1971 when vitality was at its peak, drugs were a creative spur rather than financial and social millstone they were to soon become, and output was a rich mid-Atlantic soup of blues, country, folk and any other genre that came to mind.

It was during this period that the Rolling Stones made an authentic recording of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain (featuring, I recently discovered, Ry Cooder on guitar). Clapton applied his own authenticity to it on his tribute album Me And Mr. Johnson, but tonight gives it a full R'n'B oomph with the entire band flailing away (later to do the same with another Johnson cover from that album, Little Queen of Spades).

Crossroads, another unavoidable entry in Clapton's live repertoire, emerges at a frantic pace. Such are the different tempos I've heard it played over the years, in my head it sounds like someone messing with the RPM. Moreover, like so many interpretations of classic songs of the Delta, Crossroads has long lost the high-pitched folksiness of the Johnson original, but as a old friend of Clapton's - it's the name he's given both his Antiguan drug recovery centre and the fundraising guitar festival in its honour - it's a song he could play a thousand different ways without losing anything.

Though open to less variation, Cocaine is, at least, more of a crowd singalong than we've had all night. Myriad bar room blues bands have given it a go, but no-one - not even JJ Cale who wrote and recorded it in the first place - has managed to give the song the same crowd-pleasing amplitude.

And that is part of Clapton's enduring appeal: he may never have been the most pioneering songwriter - though his songwriting has, at times, been tragically overlooked by his instrumental prowess - but his true gift is that blues-rooted guitar. Yes, there may even be better contemporary blues guitar players - Rory Gallagher, Albert Lee, even fellow Surrey suburbanite Jeff Beck, but such competition should never detract from how good Clapton has always been, and still is.

I've seen Clapton before, but this was, after many attempts, is the first time I've seen him at the Albert Hall. A venue is just a venue, of course, but within its rotund chamber, Clapton's fluidity as a truly unique guitarist comes through with rich and enveloping clarity. Even if you've never had much interest in the blues, or guitars, or even Clapton himself, you can't help being impressed by true virtuosity which may have improved with age, but must have been mind-blowing when, as an 18-year-old, he first rocked south-west London after joining The Yardbirds in October 1963.

Seeing him at a venue he has likened to playing his front room (I presume for its familiarity rather than opulent expanse) could be a little like going to a West End musical like Les Miserables: it's been going a long time, you more or less know all the tunes, and you know that most of the rest of the audience will be mainly older than you and wearing their smart going out to the theatre togs.

Yes, the audience will be a little bit conventional, notably white, middle class and probably driving Jags, but sooner or later they will loose their English shackles. On this particular evening, it takes the encore to leave everyone standing on their feet for the finale of Sunshine Of Your Love.

Still, to this day, the only psychedelic rock song to feature a riff from Blue Moon, it is dispatched by the Clapton ensemble with hearty relish, much to the crowd's clear glee. Why, there are even a few awkward attempts at air guitar. Thankfully these were few, and rendered ridiculous by the arrival onstage of Gary Clark Jr., the brilliant bluesman-come-actor whom Clapton has had as support act during the Albert Hall residency.

Closing with the old Joe Cocker song High Time We Went, with Carrack again making his presence felt on vocals and Stainton - who co-wrote the song - pumping away at the piano - it draws a warming blanket of comfort over the evening.

Clapton leaves the stage scratching his head as if going indoors for a cup of tea after putting in some bedding plants. It's a saunter, but not one of audience disrespect, just one who has seen it all before. As a guitarist, he still is God. I just would expect him to be rather bored of that tag by now.

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