Subscribing to the theory that more is more, Eric Clapton kicked off the first of two sold-out concerts at Chicago’s United Center with a 20-piece orchestra, six-piece band and three backup singers. But in the end, the best moments of his uneven show occurred when Clapton and his band, who will perform May 27 at the Forum, cut loose on some blue-eyed soul.
Rather than jumpstarting the show with any number of cuts from a catalog as rich as his omnipresent sponsor, Lexus, Slowhand opted to begin his two-hour gig with a six-song plug for his current Duck/Reprise album “Pilgrim.” Bad idea.
Clapton’s desire to distance himself from the “Best Of” tours by superstar colleagues such as the Rolling Stones is admirable. But the lethargic “Pilgrim” doesn’t even begin to show off Clapton’s expressive abilities as a songwriter or vocalist.
That’s not to say the concert wasn’t without a payoff. Midway, Clapton switched gears with a synth-enhanced version of “I Shot the Sheriff” that sounded neither like Bob Marley’s original nor Clapton’s own recording of the single. A touching version of his ballad “Wonderful Tonight” followed, though it was marred by the vocal invasion of backup singer Katie Kissoon. The song really didn’t need a Minnie Ripperton fix.
Much of Clapton’s current material alludes to the death of his young son, Conor, seven years ago. However, none of them are as eloquent or poignant as 1992’s “Tears in Heaven,” which he performed in a short acoustic set. While an acoustic setting lent a state of grace to that song, others are best left unaltered, such as “Layla.” Once the impassioned ode to unrequited love, Clapton’s song is now a weak dirge that audiences clap along to, rather than feel. Without the urgency of Clapton’s tortured delivery, the song loses all meaning.
Never the most animated performer, he appeared relaxed, especially when he was working his way through soulful treatments of “Old Love” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.” By the time Clapton finished his two-hour set with a blissful, feedback-laced rendition of his Cream classic “Sunshine of Your Love,” the show’s slow start was almost forgotten.