There was a time when Eric Clapton’s name was synonymous with sonic excess — an era when the wildly extended solos he delivered through overheated amps inspired the painting of “Clapton Is God” graffiti on many a bathroom wall. In recent years, however, Slowhand has largely been the personification of restraint in concert, prone to parcel out his riffs with more concern to their tastefulness than their tastiness.
At this, the first night of a three-gig stand at Madison Square Garden, Clapton seemed intent on turning the clock back, not so much by concentrating on vintage material — although he did trot out a good bit of that — but by applying a vintage approach, namely rolling up his sleeves and giving his instrument a bruising workout.
The 61-year-old guitarist didn’t waste much time getting into the groove, coloring “I Shot the Sheriff” in darker tones than usual — a mood that was amplified by the ominous rhythm laid down by bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Jordan.
The pair stayed in lock-step, even when — as on “After Midnight” — Clapton abandoned familiar arrangements in favor of uncharted waters.
Clapton’s always been evenhanded when it comes to sharing the spotlight with his fellow guitarists, which meant plenty of showcase time for both his regular sparring partner Doyle Bramhall II and new addition Derek Trucks, the latter of whom set off some of the set’s most spectacular fireworks.
Trucks did a remarkable job of channeling the spirit of Duane Allman — Clapton’s foil in Derek and the Dominoes — on a manic version of the short-lived supergroup’s “Gotta Get Better in a Little While,” as well as a bluer-than-blue solo that capped off “I Am Yours.”
Now and again — as on a hoary run-through of “Wonderful Tonight” — Clapton seemed to click on the automatic pilot, but those moments were isolated. Even the now-standard “sit-down” set that cleaved the two-hour perf seemed a bit more animated, thanks in part to sharp song selection and in part to an unusual display of warmth on Clapton’s part.
There’s seldom room to quibble about technical prowess when Clapton takes the stage, but the conviviality he added to the mix here made for a show that affirmed as much as it entertained.