Eric Clapton

The central question in Eric Clapton's career is, "How did a musician who started out as a guitarist admired for his taste and elegance end up as someone who is often derided for those same qualities?"

Band: Andy Fairweather-Low, Billy Preston, Steve Gadd, Nathan East, David Sancious.

The central question in Eric Clapton’s career is, “How did a musician who started out as a guitarist admired for his taste and elegance end up as someone who is often derided for those same qualities?”

His two-night run at Staples Center, the final American dates of what Clapton claims will be his final large scale tour, didn’t so much answer that as embody the conflicts that underline it.

The two-hour performance is a dream of musicianship, with Clapton and his five-piece band (featuring Billy Preston on Hammond organ) putting on a display of chops and passionate authority. But try as they may, their prodigious talents can not give sentimental eyewash like “Wonderful Tonight” or “Save the World” much of a soul.

Divided between acoustic and electric performances, the well-paced set built to an exhilarating climax. A relaxed, bluesy solo performance of “Keys To The Highway,” was an impressive beginning, but the momentum was quickly dissipated when the band joined him for the bland instrumental title track from his latest album, “Reptile” (Reprise). This was a pattern the early portion of the show followed: classics alternating with lesser material.

“Bell Bottom Blues” was especially impressive, with the relaxed but precise swing of Steve Gadd’s drumming and Preston’s talents underpinning the song’s reworking as smoldering country soul.

Whatever heat it generated was dashed by the simpering optimism of “Change The World,” but even the worst songs were saved by Clapton’s guitar playing. Both he and the band were energized by his playing; after each solo, the ensemble sounded more focused, and Clapton’s vocals took on an added urgency.

Matters dragged in the early portion of the electric set, which emphasized more recent material. But a smooth cover of “I Want a Little Girl” found Clapton leaning toward Nat King Cole’s version and made for a fine transition to the more rock-oriented part of the show.

Cream’s “Badge,” Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” increasingly moved the polite, appreciative crowd to their feet, and they finally exploded as Clapton tore into the unmistakable intro to “Layla,” the set’s climatic final song.

The encore built on the set’s energy, with Preston taking center stage with a rollicking “Will It Go Round In Circles.” He deserved the spotlight; his playing was one of the evening’s joys, and served as an effective counterweight to David Sancious’ more pedestrian keyboard work.

It was followed by the stuttering riff of “Sunshine Of Your Love,” where Clapton shared the vocals with guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low and bassist Nathan East. Bringing the evening full circle, the show ended with Clapton again on stage alone, performing a lilting “Over the Rainbow.”

It was a sweetly touching moment, proving that it is possible for Eric Clapton to pull one’s heart strings without resorting to schmaltz.

Eric Clapton

Staples Center; 18,500 seats; $85 top

Production: Presented by Concerts West. Opened and reviewed August 17, 2001. Closed August 18.

Cast: Band: Andy Fairweather-Low, Billy Preston, Steve Gadd, Nathan East, David Sancious.

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