Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck

Guitarists exude different personae when examined side by side, but show a surprising congruity when together.

Eric Clapton has long been one of rock’s most established immovable objects, and Jeff Beck one of its most enduring irresistible forces — which lends a sense of breathless intensity to their rare meetings. More than four decades after they crossed paths in the Yardbirds, the two guitarists exude palpably different personae when examined side by side, but showed a surprising congruity when asked to riff off each other at this perf.

Beck, the less commercial of the pair, was called upon to open the first of the two Gotham gigs on their brief collaborative tour, and he used virtually every moment of his set to tease, frolic and otherwise challenge the crowd. Backed by a fierce core band and a cleverly-used 12-piece orchestra, he steered clear of his own best-known material and concentrated on genre showcases, from the cathedral-ready tones of “Corpus Christi Carol” to the Celtic reveries of “Mna Na Heireann.”

Clapton also zigged where he might’ve been expected to zag, opening his solo set with four consecutive acoustic numbers rather than putting the hammer down. “Driftin'” was probably the most emotionally evocative of the tunes, its restlessness echoed in Slowhand’s amorphous leads, but by the final notes of “I’ve Got a Rock and Roll Heart,” the aud was ready for Clapton to live out the promise of that last title. He did so in a stellar “Key to the Highway,” but the closing salvo of “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Cocaine” had a clock-punching feel.

That disappeared quickly when the two men squared off for the evening’s closing set, in which they traded slots in the spotlight. Clapton sidled to the fore on an opening “Shake Your Moneymaker,” but slipped quietly to the side as an ambient bridge led to a surprising, gentle-yet-crisp take on “Moon River,” on which Beck applied his most violin-like of timbres. As might be expected, they dug into their collective past for a passel of blues chestnuts — like Jimmy Reed’s “Wee Wee Baby” — but the flame burned most brightly when they left that comfort zone, as on an extended rendition of Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.”

There seemed to be a genuine camaraderie between the two men, but there was also a definite watchfulness. If they managed to put aside concerns about stepping on each others’ toes, Beck and Clapton might manage to start quite a conflagration, rather than generate the warm glow they created here.

Eric Clapton/Jeff Beck

Madison Square Garden; 19, 400 capacity; $254.50 top

Production

Presented by Live Nation. Opened and reviewed Feb. 18, 2009. Also Feb. 19, 2009.

Cast

Bands, JB: Beck, Rhonda Smith, Jason Rebello, Narada Michael Walden. EC: Clapton, Chris Stainton,Walt Richmond, Willie Weeks, Steve Gadd, Michelle John, Sharon White.

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