Eric Clapton has always been a fairly low-key performer, and even though Monday was the closing night of a four-concert stand at the “Fabulous” Forum in Inglewood, he let his fingers do most of the talking. Saying almost nothing to the audience except for the occasional “thank you,” Clapton showed yet again that for him, performances are all about the music.
With opening sets from Jimmie Vaughan (the late Stevie Ray’s older brother) and semi-new kid Gary Clark, Jr., the evening was a dream date for fans of blues guitarists. Clarke’s face-melting guitar solos, which were tinged with Hendrix-esque psychedelic tones, dazzled the crowd, particularly on his cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” But once the headliner took the stage, it was clear who the master was.
Still, the contrast between Clapton’s low-key entrance and the crowd’s rapturous applause was almost comical. Clad in jeans and a blue short-sleeve button-down shirt, Clapton resembled someone’s surprisingly talented dad more than a rock legend. He acknowledged the crowd with a polite “Hi,” and broke into J.J. Cale’s “Somebody’s Knockin’.”
The setlist was divided into a group of acoustic songs bookended by electric guitar tracks, with both “My Father’s Eyes” and “Change the World” noticeably absent. However, Clapton gave the people what they wanted, serving up Cream’s “White Room” (with bassist Nathan East taking on the late Jack Bruce’s vocal parts), a singalong-able “Lay Down Sally,” and his hit version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” which featured an especially yowly solo and showed off the abilities of backing singers Sharon White and Sharlotte Gibson, who dominated the choruses.
Along with East, White and Gibson, Clapton’s band featured several veterans who’ve been at it nearly as long as he has: Steve Gadd on drums and Chris Stainton and Walt Richmond on keyboards. Their experience showed as the group traded off solos seamlessly, graciously and effortlessly ceding the spotlight to the next player (five decades with an instrument will do that). Having said that, the solos were technically superb yet they also came across as somewhat rote.
The heartbreaking “Tears in Heaven” — written for Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor, who died in 1991 — took on a decidedly lighter feel than the recorded version with a gentle reggae vibe. After lulling the audience with “Wonderful Tonight,” the guitarist jolted them back to life with an abrupt transition into the Cream favorite “Crossroads,” featuring Stainton pounding the Yamaha.
But just as quickly as he’d brought the audience to its feet, he brought things back down again, heading straight into the gentler tones of “Little Queen of Spades” with barely a pause. He closed the main set with a fairly restrained “Cocaine” — which nevertheless sent the audience into a fervor — and returned for a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” accompanied by Clark and Vaughan.
Throughout the entire show, there was barely any visible communication between Clapton and his band apart from the occasional nod of his guitar-neck to indicate the end of a song. In fact, his eyes were closed for much of the evening as the songs poured out of him, the seven paneled screens across the back of the stage giving the audience a close-up of the view most of them wanted to see: his fingers artfully caressing and cajoling the strings.
Two years ago, around the time of his 70th birthday, Clapton promised: “I know I’ve been threatening retirement for the last fifty years, [but] I swear this is it, no more.” But two years later, his “50th anniversary” tour is still going on, and he’s clearly still got plenty of music in him.