Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden

Eric Clapton, Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan & the Tilt-A-Whirl Band

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Photos by Arnie Goodman

By Barry Fisch

The last of the two shows of this guitar jamboree at Madison Square Garden proved to be a delight to the sold out crowd, many of whom paid exorbitant prices to gain admission.  It was an interesting mix of fans in the venue, both young and old. Grey hairs and millennials, each in attendance to check out current and future blues rock legends. Before the show began, sitting just two rows below us we watched a couple in their 60s openly puffing and passing a joint. Just two rows in front of them was a young man standing and eating from a plastic tray of edamame. The culture may have changed, but the music presented this evening clearly appeals to multiple generations, which speaks volumes to the impact this genre of music has had for decades.

Opening the evening and celebrating his 66th birthday was Jimmie Vaughan, a tasty lead guitarist/vocalist with a style all his own. Supported by his six-piece Tilt-A-Whirl Band (including upright bass, sax, and trombone), they played a short 25 minute set of Texas swing and blues, just what was needed to get the crowd in the mood.

After a short break came Gary Clark Jr., himself already established as a headliner, and for good reason. Clearly influenced by the rock and blues guitarists that came before him, this guitar hero of the younger set is able to blend together 1960s guitar power similar to Hendrix and Cream but with a subtle R&B flavor. Playing what looked to be a modified Gibson SG, his performance at times had the audience standing on their feet applauding at the completion of his tasteful and energetic guitar solos. Deservedly so. One got the impression he was even holding back just a little, respectful of not trying to blow the roof off the place as one of the support acts. We look forward to seeing him do that at one of his own shows sometime soon.

Everyone was on their feet as Eric Clapton and his band took to the stage. Opening with the only song played all evening from his most recent album I Still Do (J.J. Cale’s “Somebody’s Knockin’”) it immediately landed Eric and his band into a relaxed blues pocket that maintained itself throughout the set. With a band like this, it was only natural. Legendary drummer Steve Gadd keeping a solid groove, Nathan East on bass (revisiting EC’s band after some solo albums and a member of the jazz group Fourplay), and Clapton band keyboard stalwart Chris Stainton helped to keep it all tight. Add keyboardist Walt Richmond, and the backing vocalists Sharlotte Gibson (her first stint with EC), plus the woman who has now been singing with Eric Clapton longer than anyone who’s come before her, the lovely Shar White, and you have a band of stellar proportions.

Eric himself was right on the money all evening long. Just about to turn 72 years old and afflicted with all sorts of physical ailments that sometimes comes along at that age, he did not let any of it get in his way on this night. He took on the responsibility of being the only guitarist in the band for these shows, and it was pure Eric all the way. Various blues covers (“Key To the Highway,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”), the much-closer-to-the-original Bob Marley arrangement of  “I Shot the Sherriff,” and the four song acoustic set (including a new reggae arrangement of  “Tears In Heaven” which was just splendid) showed that vocally, he’s still in fine form as well.

That said, the set list itself was fairly predictable. With the passing of the legendary Chuck Berry just two days before, there was anticipation of a musical tribute of some sort. A version of the Chuck Berry blues tune “Wee Wee Hours” (which Clapton has previously performed) would have been a perfect fit, but it was not to be (nor was there even any mention of Berry).

The final encore brought back Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmie Vaughn for a rousing triple guitar version of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me.” Even after three and one half hours of guitar-driven performances, the crowd still wanted more, regardless of their specific generation.

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