Eric Clapton & Robert Cray
at TD Banknorth Garden,
Boston, Mass.
(3 October 2006)

What better way to end a crisp and colorful autumn day in New England than with an evening of rhythm & blues, plaintive lyrics, some old songs and new songs, and terrifically grand guitar playing?

Guitarist Robert Cray and his band opened the evening, filling 30 minutes with a short list of both familiar and new selections to entertain the restless crowd. From the 20-year-old album Bad Influence came the title tune, as well as "Phone Booth," a song that Cray craftily personalized onstage to mention Boston, not Chicago. Elmore James' "The 12-Year-Old Boy" offered the ageless lament of a man who lost his woman to a mere youngster. Three songs from Cray's newest album, Twenty, completed the set: "Poor Johnny," "I'm Walkin'" and the title track.

Cray's moving and mournful musicianship was nicely accompanied by Jim Pugh on keyboards, Karl Sevareid on bass guitar and Kevin Hayes on drums. Fast or slow, the blues turned the audience into a sea of jostled bobblehead dolls, each nodding slightly with the heartbeat of the music.

After a half-hour intermission and set change, it was time for what the local classic rock station advertised as the Appearance of God. Eric Clapton and his eight-piece band took the stage and immediately launched into "Pretending," a measured march setting the tone for the rest of the show. It was followed by "I Shot the Sheriff," which featured a long and intricate solo by Eric, and "Got to Get Better in a Little While," an old Derek & the Dominos tune. Cray returned to join the group for "Old Love," a song he and Clapton wrote together. Here they traded flying-finger instrumentals. Then it was time for "Everybody Oughta Make a Change," which segued (even with Eric's quick guitar switch) right into "Motherless Children."

The middle third of the show was a semi-acoustic "sit-down set," as Clapton and lead guitarist Derek Trucks sank into chairs and showed what they could do with folk guitars. They began with "Back Home" and the melodic "I Am Yours" before offering up the snappy crowd-pleaser, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out." Ending the set with the thoughtful "Running on Faith" allowed the repeating tagline ("Love comes over me") to resound throughout the arena.

The final portion of the performance allowed many of the band members to step up to the musical plate. Steve Jordan punctuated the air with drums that included a tightly wound snare; and he, not Eric, directed the last chord of each song. Trucks, a veteran player with Allman Brothers experience, illustrated his mastery of the slide technique and moved aptly up and down the frets. Doyle Bramhall II confounded those of us savvy enough to realize he plays a left-handed guitar strung for a rightie, and is pretty good at it, too. Keyboard players Chris Stainton and Tim Carmon added flavor to the mix, with an occasional hint of the old Hammond organ sound every once in a while. Vocalists Michelle John and Sharon White provided the harmonies. And in front of them all was 61-year-old Clapton, leaning back with eyes closed and profile raised to the heavens, making it all look casual and effortless and something anyone who ever held a six-string could easily do. If only.

Together they gave us "After Midnight," "Little Queen of Spades" and the shuffle "Further on Up the Road." If the concert had ended right then and there, it would have been satisfying enough. But the mood slowed down with the only true sing-along song of the evening, "Wonderful Tonight." As with "Running on Faith," "Wonderful Tonight" showed what powerful emotion can be wrought from a simple G-chord progression that any campfire strummer might master.

No surprises were in store this night, for Clapton adhered to the strict playlist he set on this tour. And even though everyone knew it was coming, an electric thrill still shot up the collective spine when the air split with the original opening riff of "Layla." Has it really been 34 years since the long version hit the charts way back in 1972? Doesn't its lasting esteem warrant it a higher ranking than #27 in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time"? Hearing it performed live was the ultimate treat of the day, as the whole band lent a hand with the instrumentation. Trucks' involvement was particularly ironic, given that Duane Allman had played on the original recording.

The last note of "Layla" became the first note of "Cocaine," bringing back to life the song Clapton abandoned after he went through rehab. Now sung as an anti-drug warning, the selection was no doubt included in order to further promote his new CD, The Road to Escondido, which marks Eric's collaboration with J.J. Cale, who penned both "Cocaine" and "After Midnight."

The concert was two hours long when Cray returned once again, this time to help with the evening's encore, "Crossroads," a final testament to the guitar and to some of the best players in the business. A grateful crowd clapped half-heartedly for more, but what it had already seen and heard would have to do. Maybe last for a lifetime.

Both bands seemed to travel light. The stage consisted of a simple background enhanced with a bit of technology to add some color from time to time. No monster lighting structure engulfed the stage, and no crewmen had to scramble madly up rope ladders before the show to go to work, relying only on the security of harnesses and carabiners to prevent them from falling three stories to their harm. Thus was the music the center of attention.

Clapton himself did not approach the microphone between songs except to introduce members of the band after their instrumental solos. Upon further reflection: why should he feel obligated to say anything to us? His music speaks for itself.

by Corinne H. Smith
13 January 2007

[ visit Clapton's website ]

[ visit Cray's website ]