Review: Eric Clapton Lets His Guitar—and the Blues—Do the Talking at the Garden

(Image credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

In 2015, Eric Clapton said he would not tour any more, even writing in the program for his 70th birthday tour, "I swear this is it, no more.”

Happily, he changed his mind and decided to play a limited number of shows this year in New York, Los Angeles and London. On Monday, March 20, he played the second of two nights at Madison Square Garden, where he will return for two shows in September.

There has been some grumbling from longtime fans about a relatively short 90-minute set that didn’t really include any deep tracks and was heavy on pop hits like “Tears in Heaven,” “Wonderful Tonight” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” Fair enough, and anyone who paid (a lot) for tickets is to free to complain if they want. But it’s all a matter of managing expectations and being realistic.

Jimmie Vaughan, who opened the night with a too-short 30-minute set, was celebrating his 66th birthday, and it was Clapton who inspired him when he was a teen. It’s easy to take people for granted, but Clapton is the same guy who debuted with the Yardbirds in 1964—53 years ago. The man is 72, apparently suffers from a neurological disorder that threatens his ability to play guitar—and he sounds pretty damn good.

I found it thrilling to be in the room with Eric sounding like… Eric. If that sounds flippant or dismissive, it’s not. Clapton’s touch and tone are completely distinct, and they were very much present throughout the night, from the opener, “Somebody's Knocking,” the only song from 2016’s I Still Do, to the closer, “Before You Accuse Me,” during which he was joined by openers Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr.

He may have missed some notes, but he also was playing without a second guitarist, and it was great to hear his rhythm playing throughout. His singing was also excellent, as was the overall sound. How far we’ve come in arena sound systems! His acoustic playing, during a four-song mini-set, was particularly excellent, especially on “Driftin’ Blues” and its gorgeous intro.

Clapton’s performance was extremely professional, if at times perfunctory. He barely spoke, not even to introduce his very solid band, which included drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Nathan East, keyboardists Chris Stainton and Walt Richmond and singers Sharon White and Sharlotte Gibson. They back him ably but rarely challenge or push him, and Clapton certainly does not ooze spontaneity: the setlists for the two MSG performances were the same in a slightly different order, and he didn’t give Vaughan or Clark a lot of space or interaction on their sit-in, when a musical conversation would have been exciting.

Heck, Clapton didn’t even add a Chuck Berry song or acknowledge the passing of one of his heroes, who died the day before the first Garden show. This is hard to understand, and it would be welcome if he approached any of these things differently, but no one should take these performances for granted.

Gregg Allman and Willie Nelson have recently cancelled shows for health reasons, we are losing beloved musical figures at an alarming rate, and I celebrate Clapton for reversing his retirement and giving us at least a few more shows. Long may he run.

Eric Clapton & His Band, March 20, 2017
01. Somebody's Knocking
02. Key to the Highway
03. Hoochie Coochie Man
04. I Shot the Sheriff
05. Driftin' Blues
06. Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
07. Layla
08. Tears in Heaven
09. Badge
10. Wonderful Tonight
11. Crossroads
12. Little Queen of Spades
13. Cocaine
14. Sunshine of Your Love (encore)
15. Before You Accuse Me (encore) with Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr.

Alan Paul is the author of One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. Follow him on Twitter: @AlPaul

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Alan Paul

Alan Paul is the author of three books, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, One Way Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band – which were both New  York Times bestsellers – and Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, a memoir about raising a family in Beijing and forming a Chinese blues band that toured the nation. He’s been associated with Guitar World for 30 years, serving as Managing Editor from 1991-96. He plays in two bands: Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, with Guitar World’s Andy Aledort.