Eric Clapton – guitar, vocals
Steve Winwood – Hammond organ, guitar, vocals
Chris Stainton – keyboards
Willie Weeks – bass
Ian Thomas – drums
I’m convinced that any great concert experience requires an interesting precursor — the company around you, the trip to the venue, the small details that elevate something to do on a Tuesday night into a memory. I’m equally convinced that while it might make a great experience, it might not make a great story. More often than not, one person’s good time is another person’s drab tale, even if the center of the trip is the reunion if the nucleus of famed supergroup Blind Faith, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. Then again, with such a draw, one might have to rethink all those presumptions, as there was nothing more dramatic on February 26th than the performances of two legendary players.
Opening with “Had To Cry Today,” Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton took the stage with guitars strapped on and loaded with confidence. The three-night MSG residency may have surprised fans when they heard it was going to happen, but the interplay between the two makes clear just what a natural fit they are. The other surprise is how the players were arranged: I originally expected Winwood to open the show, play some songs, then have Clapton come out for team-ups, then Clapton would hold forth for the rest. That all participants stayed onstage during the full show (excepting one solo turn each) was a treat.
The partnership produced a lot of memorable performances, including a room-rocking version of Clapton’s “Forever Man” with Winwood taking vocal turns. I expected Clapton to play well, but on Tuesday night he seemed determined to reclaim his rock god status, bending his strings like they were rubber bands, instilling every guitar-hero-to-be in the audience with profound envy. The revelation was, however, that Steve Winwood’s voice has not changed one little bit. Had they played an old clip of Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” over the PA, then transitioned to live Winwood, there would be no difference. It makes you wonder why he’s been off the radar so drastically this past decade.
That frontman tradeoff occurred all evening, notably on the Blind Faith classic “Presence of the Lord” with Winwood settled behind the Hammond organ. On this, I realized that Clapton’s guitar sound was super clean with only an occasional punch of wah-pedal to add dynamism, and yet he got every ounce of power out of his Fender. Pretty amazing. We’d be knocked out many more times, during the Traffic rout of “Glad” teamed up with “Well Alright,” the Jimi Hendrix two-fer of “Little Wing” and “Voodoo Chile,” and the requisite “Dear Mr. Fantasy” encore.
Another great decision on the part of our hosts was the setlist choices — they focused on the 1970s, sparing us several of their warhorses, including the hated “Wonderful Tonight.” (In my niece Amanda’s words, “That’s the stupidest song ever and makes me angry just listening to it.”) Eschewing “Layla,” Clapton’s Babyface collaborations, and the majority of Winwood’s biggest pop tunes made room for songs suitable for jamming. When it comes down to their solo breaks, Steve Winwood walks away as winner. Yes, Clapton’s acoustic blues for “Ramblin’ On My Mind” was entertaining, but Winwood’s turn at Ray Charles’ classic “Georgia On My Mind” was nothing less than a tribute to a musical hero, and once again, his fountain-of-youth vocals stole the spotlight completely. It would prove to be the high point of the night.
“Cocaine” closed the show and gave keyboardist Chris Stainton a chance to shine, which he did. It was thrilling to watch him break from the sideman ranks and throw out some rollicking key-licks himself. However, the song directly preceding it (“Can’t Find My Way Home”) might have been a more emotional closer. It may be a telling sign that they dropped the key of the song so that Winwood didn’t need to reach so far for the high notes, but to my relief, the drop-down worked wonderfully. By going a step lower, the chords were allowed to really shake the seats as both primaries played the electrics and bassist Willie Weeks held down the spooky undercurrent. Changing the key to accommodate a singer out of prime is a risky move. In the worst cases, as with the recent Genesis reunion, the fire is sucked out of the performance, rendering the songs little more than proficient karaoke. Winwood had already proved he still had it, so this alteration never came across as a concession.
The show ended at around 10:20; a short performance by many standards, but certainly not a disappointment. While critics tend to fetishize performers like Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia, the truth is they’re both still consummate performers and their skills remain unmatched. If these performances wind up on DVD, as I believe they will, you’d be well advised to check them out. Even if the trip to and from Madison Square Garden lacked drama, the night will remain unforgettable.
Winwood / Clapton: Set List for Tuesday 26 February, 2008
01. Had To Cry Today
02. Low Down
03. Forever Man
04. Them Changes
05. Sleeping In The Ground
06. Presence Of The Lord
07. Glad / Well Alright
08. Double Trouble
09. Pearly Queen
10. Tell The Truth
11. No Face
12. After Midnight
13. Split Decision
14. Ramblin’ On My Mind (EC solo acoustic)
15. Georgia On My Mind (SW solo hammond)
16. Little Wing
17. Voodoo Chile
18. Can’t Find My Way Home
20. Dear Mr. Fantasy