Clapton / Winwood Concert Review: 26 June 2009 in Glendale, Arizona
There were a few minor adjustments to the set list for the concert on 26 June 2009, with "Georgia On My Mind" coming back as Steve Winwood's solo number and "There's A River" again taking the place of "No Face No Name No Number," as it has several times on the tour. The news was a bit slow coming in from Glendale, Arizona ... it must be the heat as there were reports it was 106F ... but it was worth the wait. The Where's Eric! Team is going to take the night off and let Mike Eagen of Phoenix, Arizona tell you all about it ...
Review by Mike Eagen / Phoenix AZ
OK, being as no one else in Arizona, including what passes for a local newspaper, feels like contributing, I guess I will. Before I address the concert proper, I just wanted to take a few lines and comment on the audience. It was an interesting demographic and I must admit, not one I was prepared for. What do I mean? Well, for one thing, I have never, and I mean NEVER seen anyone on a walker at a rock concert! I counted at least ten last night. One woman, who was otherwise fully ambulatory, was at least 80. I was initially taken aback by this observation and then it dawned on me that I am no spring chicken at 53, and feeling every one of those years after a lifetime at sea. Moreover, if one considers that many of the original fans of Cream and Blind Faith were in their mid- to late-thirties back in the 60s, when I too first became aware of Eric and Steve, then the fact that they are septuagenarians or even octogenarians now shouldn't have surprised me. Steve and Eric are 61 and 64 respectively; they have fans their age and older! Gee, ya think?!! Not that there weren't plenty of thirty-somethings and younger there; there were, but in truth, my children, ages 18, 15, and 11 were by far the youngest. People seated around us engaged them in conversation asking if they were really fans and so forth, and were amazed that they were as knowledgeable as they are. My son (the 11-year old, and an aspiring guitarist) told the gentleman in front of us upon leaving the arena that he wished they had played "Little Wing" (so did I!) and the man, with a smile on his face said, "Me too partner!" I guess I did something right.
I have seen Eric many times (I believe last night was the tenth going back to a Cream concert I went to with my older sister in San Francisco, I believe in 1968 ... things start running together when the brain cells start dying), but even though Traffic made it through my home town of San Diego several times in the 70s, for some reason, something always got in the way of me seeing them, so this was going to be a treat on many levels, not the least of which was the prospect of hearing the "A" side of Blind Faith from the movers and shakers of that too short lived ensemble.
On to the show, the set was as advertised, with no surprises, but I must admit that I am jealous of those in Houston who got to hear Steve do "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" as it was always one of my Traffic favorites, but he more than made up with his rendering of "Georgia On My Mind"; just he and the Hammond B3. It was soulful and sincere, and the sound guys had finally gotten things dialed in (more on that below) for his voice. I have full faith that somewhere Ray Charles was smiling down saying, "Bring it on home Little Brother!" I was, not for the last time yesterday evening, moved to tears.
As regards the sound, my comments echo some others I have read from the previous shows on the tour, and while I am no sound engineer, I think what we all might be experiencing is that sound checks earlier in the day notwithstanding, until there are 15,000 bodies in a hockey barn or what have you, even one as nice and intimate as Jobbing.com Arena (not a bad seat in the house), they really donÃ¢€™t know how the acoustics are going to work. So it took them a song or two to get things properly dialed in. It's probably unavoidable, but it's a shame because we kind of lost Steve's vocal contributions on "Had To Cry Today."
I'm sort of bouncing around with regard to the order of songs and comments, but it's impressions that I am trying to convey, and here is one that people need to take to the bank: Abe Laboriel, Jr. is the best damn drummer I have heard in years ... maybe ever, because I've seen everyone from Buddy Rich to Carl Palmer and back again, and this young man is truly a wunderkind of percussion. He sounded like two drummers and a Latin percussion section thrown into the mix. I shamefully admit that I was unaware of his work prior to yesterday evening, but in reading up it is clear that he is highly respected within the profession and a master technician; a testament to his status as a graduate of the Berklee School of Music. Clapton has played with some pretty fine drummers in the past, but if I was in a position to advise him, I would tell him to not entertain thoughts of taking anyone else on the road but Abe when performing this particular iteration of his recorded catalogue. Abe's percussive abilities were at once tasteful, propulsive and most importantly to the genre of blues-rock that formed the bulk of the songs in the set, POWERFUL. It was also clear that his educational background leads him to return to how others played things and really study them. What do I mean? Well, I have heard Eric play "Can't Find My Way Home" many times live, but in this rendering it was clear that Abe actually listened to the way Ginger Baker played on that Blind Faith recording. It wasn't that it was a faithful reproduction; something I neither require nor desire from a musical genre that encourages spontaneity and interpretation, but in this case the understated (as he was backing both Winwood and Clapton on acoustic guitars) work reminiscent of Baker's contribution to that classic was there, making the listening experience, for the fan of the original cut, truly magical. This was the second time that I was moved to tears. Those of us of a certain age can relate to that feeling evoked by that song. One other (for there are really too many to relate) very fascinating contribution of Abe's was on the Blind Faith rendering of Buddy Holly's "Well Alright." I swear he was channeling Gene Krupa's tom-tom from the Benny Goodman jazz classic "Sing, Sing, Sing" by way of the late Buddy Miles! It truly knocked me for a loop!
Perhaps unintentionally, but I am guessing more by design, the videographer !whatever they pay him, he's worth it) who relays his camera work to the big screens so we can all see close ups of the artists at work alternated between Clapton, Winwood and Laboriel almost (but not quite) completely to the exclusion of bassist Willie Weeks, keyboard virtuoso Chris Stainton and singers (and irreplaceable to the total package in my opinion) Michelle John and Sharon White. Clearly, Clapton et al. believe that Abe is that integral to the effort that they feature him. It's got to be a compliment of the highest order.
As regards Stainton, Weeks and the very talented Ms. John and Ms. White, what can one say but that they were the consummate professionals and vitally important to the final product. Willie rarely leaves the vicinity of the drum riser and his symbiosis with Laboriel was obvious. Weeks locks down the bottom groove like few others in the business (Motown phenoms James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt come to mind) and lets the soloists run for all their worth. He is a treasure and it was a privilege to see and hear him play. Chris Stainton is one of those musicians who you wished would do something for himself record-wise, but that he is one of the best sidemen in the business was evident, turning in blistering piano solos on "Voodoo Chile" and "Cocaine" amongst others. To his credit, Eric Clapton has always been generous to his supporting cast, letting them stand out and challenge him to bigger and better things, and his relationship with Stainton is a prime example of this. With regard to John and White, as someone in one of the other reviews from Texas said, their voices really do "go all the way to 11" and were those gospel inspired contributions not present, they would be extremely notable for their absence. "Forever Man" was a prime example of this observation; without their contribution, it's just another song. In many ways, they "made" the song their own. In another time, another tour perhaps, maybe Clapton will offer one or both the opportunity to sing lead vocals as he occasionally did back in the day when being backed by Yvonne Elliman and Marcy Levy. I suspect the audience would be in for a treat.
I have spent a lot of time talking about everyone but Eric and Steve but that's because these talented musicians deserved high praise for bringing out the best in the two "stars." Eric and Steve were both in fine voice once the previously mentioned sound issues were resolved, but let's face it, for most of us it is their virtuosity with their instruments of choice that we all pay to see and hear. I am pleased to say that the crowd had no reason for disappointment on that point. It's funny to watch the difference between how Eric and Steve approach the guitar. For Eric, as others have noted, that Strat is an extension of his body. He knows it quite literally, as well as he knows the back of his hand. The notes seem to fly out, almost effortlessly as he closes his eyes and lets the magic happen. With Steve, the end product is a blues inspired lead guitar solo that is often on a par with Clapton's but to watch him work is an entirely different experience. The perception, and that's all it is, a perception on my part, is that what he is doing is "hard" for him, and he has to really labor at it. Unlike Eric, there is little, if any, closing of the eyes or apparent lack of real effort (for which Eric is sometimes accused of, incorrectly in my opinion, "mailing it in."). Steve watches the fret board and what his hands are doing on it, and the look on his face is one of supreme concentration. Only occasionally while playing guitar would he look at Clapton with the shy smile and voiceless repartee that he does frequently when behind a keyboard. It is an interesting study in contrasts, but also might say a lot about how hard Steve works to achieve his vision and to satisfy his fans. One thing is certain, near the end of "Dear Mr. Fantasy" in the encore he and Eric trade riffs in a bit of a "cutting" session and trust me, Steve gave as good as he got, and we the fans profited from this all too brief "competition!"
Eric has never been known for bantering with the audience, simply allowing his playing and singing to tell the story, and from what I understand, Steve has never been known for being loquacious either. However, as he sat down at the Hammond on a stage that had been vacated by everyone else, he thanked the audience for being there and asked, I believe as a joke (but who can really say?) what town he was in, for which the audience immediately forgave and rewarded him. He then proceeded, seemingly with some emotional difficulty, to thank us all for being part of what he referred to as "this situation": touring with Clapton. One detected a note of wistful regret for perhaps not doing this more in the intervening 40 years. He then proceeded to make Ray Charles proud with "Georgia On My Mind."
The short acoustic set was outstanding, highlighted as it was by the "unplugged" version of "Layla" and "Can't Find My Way Home." People often say things like "better than ever" although Clapton himself has admitted in interviews that he can't physically do some things in his playing that he did even ten or 15-years ago, but in the case of his acoustic work, I believe he might have actually improved over the years. What he did on the Grammy winning "Unplugged" pales in comparison to what I saw and heard last night. Like Abe Laboriel seems to have studied what other drummers did in support of Clapton, so too does it seem that Eric has really studied the acoustic blues guitar work of Robert Johnson in particular. The flawless finger picking alternated with percussive strumming and sliding along the fret board a la Johnson and was simply outstanding. It sent shivers down my spine for like Johnson; Eric was standing at the crossroads, inviting us all to go for a ride!
As others have mentioned, the band's homage to Jimi Hendrix with their rendition of "Voodoo Chile" was the sonic highlight of the evening. I rarely do this, but I noted the time on my watch, roughly 9:50PM, when the song started and it was 10:05 (hard to be accurate when clapping as hard as I have but few times in my life) when it ended and they walked off stage. In the intervening 12 to 15 minutes one was treated to the full virtuosity of Winwood, Clapton and Stainton. When Winwood did his blacksnake moan around the words "Well, the night I was born, Lord I swear the moon turned a fire red" one could see that moon as if it were immediately in front of one's eyes and of its color one would have little doubt. The three soloists then took turns repeatedly assaulting the ears with playing as powerful and beautiful as any I have heard in nearly 45 years of concert going. Eric alternated between soft, jazz-inspired finger picking on his black Strat and a series of full volume ascending arpeggios that invariably end up in an area of the fret board near the guitar body that few of us have the ability to even investigate, and that's were that thing happens where Clapton's confidence and absolute courage kicks in; his signature bending of the bottom E, B and G strings up and damn near off the fret board! I say "courage" because most of us fear to even try lest we break a string and have to make a trip to the local guitar store. My 11-year old leaned over and said, with a kind of tearful resignation in his voice, "Papa, how does he do THAT?" All I could do was return his attention to the stage and big screen and say, "Dude, people have been asking that for a long, long time. Watch and learn, because that's the only answer I have."
The first song of the encore was of course "Cocaine" and I cannot say that it was unremarkable, because anytime any of the three "feature players" start down the road, it's always a special experience, and Chris Stainton blew the doors off with his solo. Of more importance in my view was that this particular song demonstrated that perhaps Eric knows a little bit more about his audience's taste, concepts like the band "mailing it in," and his audience's participatory abilities with his music as well as their desire to join in. Over the years I have heard the audience sing along to the refrain, "She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie ... Cocaine!" Because of the volume, one really couldn't hear the audience joining in all that well last night, but Clapton knew they were there in the back seat, almost like the four-year old asking again and again, "Are we there yet?", and at the very end of the song, neither he, nor the audience were disappointed when the band actually "stopped short" on the word "lie" in the final refrain, leaving the audience on their own shouting a deafening "Cocaine!" to end the song. Both Clapton and the audience laughed at the private joke played on his extended family by that "uncle" we all have who is loved but rarely in town. That sort of whimsy, while not common in his performances, is just one more reason why we love him so. Over the years he's gone from being a British kid with a bad perm, to "one of us," driving to the local A&W with his kids in Columbus, Ohio in his hot rod. We "get it" even if others don't, and thatÃ¢€™s all that matters. While we all believe he and Winwood to be "masters," all he will ever admit to is that he is the "journeyman" in the historic context of artisan's guilds; bringing his superlative skills to the construction site, and then rolling up his sleeves and delivering an honest day's work. If only more "stars" regardless of the field of endeavor, approached their careers that way.
No, he isn't God, but if anyone is still reading at this point, and they have the wherewithal and opportunity to do so, do what it takes to be present at one of the three remaining shows of this tour, because at the end of the day, seeing Clapton and Winwood, healthy and in top form, reminds one that, as Albert Einstein once said in reference to Mahatma Gandhi, "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood."
Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and their band perform tonight, 27 June 2009, at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. From there, they head to California for the two final shows on the tour: 29 June at the Oracle Arena in Oakland and 30 June at the Hollywood Bowl.
Clapton / Winwood Set List - 26 June 2009
Jobing.com Arena, Glendale AZ
01. Had To Cry Today
02. Low Down
03. After Midnight
04. Presence of The Lord
05. Sleeping in the Ground
07. Well Alright
08. Tough Luck Blues
09. Pearly Queen
10. There's A River
11. Forever Man
12. Georgia On My Mind - Steve Winwood solo
13. Driftin' - acoustic
14. How Long Blues
15. Layla - acoustic version
16. Can't Find My Way Home
17. Split Decision
18. Voodoo Chile
20. 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
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