Eric Clapton's eagerly awaited return to the Southland attracted entertainment industry bigwigs and celebs from all ranks who reveled in the legendary guitarist's signature chops served up during a perfectly paced two-hour set comprising new tunes and classic offerings.

Eric Clapton’s eagerly awaited return to the Southland attracted entertainment industry bigwigs and celebs from all ranks who reveled in the legendary guitarist’s signature chops served up during a perfectly paced two-hour set comprising new tunes and classic offerings.

Aided by a 20-piece orchestra and a contingent of some of the music industry’s preeminent sidemen, Clapton dazzled devotees with a set that was at once casual and tight and allowed his understated vocals and efficient riff work to take center stage.

And while the majority of the crowd clearly came to hear nuggets like “Layla” (Clapton’s 1971 hit with Derek & the Dominoes) and “Wonderful Tonight” — as indicated by their enthusiastic reaction to the songs’ opening bars — he also impressed the predominantly over-40 crowd with the newer material off his recently released Duck/Reprise Records disc “Pilgrim.”

Opening the set with the album’s lead-off single, “My Father’s Eyes,” and previewing a handful of its tracks, Clapton and crew segued into an acoustic performance that boasted “Tears in Heaven” and a stripped-down “Layla” (the likes of which appear on his “Unplugged” disc and concert DVD).

A lesser performer could have been eclipsed by the frequently rising strings proffered by the orchestra, prominent on such tunes as “River of Tears,” or overshadowed by the high harmonies from the trio of charismatic backing singers.

But Clapton more than rose to the challenge, opting to say less than a paragraph of words during his between-song comments throughout the show, preferring to let his ax do the talking.

A hefty blues segment showcased Clapton’s gritty vocals and weeping guitar strings with such tunes as “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” and gave way to a rollicking set finale of “Cocaine,” a decidedly politically incorrect number in this era of D.A.R.E programs, but one that nabbed the evening’s biggest response.

The expected closer of the 1968 Cream classic “Sunshine of Your Love” — Clapton frequently ends a perf with it — afforded him the opportunity to provide a blistering display of the dexterity of his digits that kept the crowd hanging on every riff until it was time to go home.

Clapton performs at the MGM Grand’s Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Eric Clapton

Rock; Forum; 14,500 seats; $76 top

Production

Promoted by Avalon Attractions. Band: Clapton, Alan Darby, Andy Fairweather Low, Tim Carman, Kenneth Crouch, Nathan East, Ricky Lawson, Katie Kissoon, Chyna, Charleen Hines. Reviewed May 27, 1998.

With

Band: Clapton, Alan Darby, Andy Fairweather Low, Tim Carman, Kenneth Crouch, Nathan East, Ricky Lawson, Katie Kissoon, Chyna , Charleen Hines.

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