May 04, 2008

Clapton Inspired on Tour's Opening Night

Considering the diversity and scope of his career, Eric Clapton could – with minimal effort – deliver a concert chock-full of radio hits and popular album cuts from his catalog. There’s certainly an abundance of such material to mine, yet ostensibly (and repetitively) trying to please the most casual of fans often comes at the expense of the artist’s own passion.

To his credit and to the benefit of his audience, Clapton treated over 15,000 at Tampa’s Ford Amphitheatre on Saturday night to music that most resonates with him – namely the blues, in its various shades and expressions – which translated into a stirring, and at times invigorating, two-hour performance.

In just the first three songs – “Tell The Truth,” “Key To The Highway,” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” – Slowhand suggested that a blues-rich evening lay in store. With back-to-back shots of “Little Wing” and “Double Trouble” to follow, he obliterated all remaining speculation.

He capitalized on an aggressive new rhythm section – consisting of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas – which suited the thick and gritty tones of songs like “Outside Woman Blues” and “Before You Accuse Me.” Such a solid foundation underscored Clapton’s intense guitar work, as on “Motherless Children” and on a potent cover of the Wilson Pickett gem, “Don’t Knock My Love,” which resounded especially strong. Guitarist Doyle Bramhall II provided ample complement to Clapton’s chords and riffs while keyboardist Chris Stainton seamlessly filled out the sound.

During a sit-down segment, Clapton alternated between electric and acoustic guitars, offering inspired renditions of songs that included “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” “Motherless Child” and “Running On Faith,” the latter yielding a most-appreciative ovation.

Far from seeming compulsory or halfhearted, Clapton ultimately rewarded the audience with some of his most familiar works, as “Wonderful Tonight” preceded “Layla” to close the main set. He returned to the stage to deliver a raucous version of “Cocaine” before barnstorming through “Crossroads,” which featured opener Robert Randolph on pedal steel.

While not one of music’s most predictable live acts, Eric Clapton is among its most sincere, which justifies – even when he plays rather obscure material – the deference afforded him by his audience. On this night, he summoned a thrilling performance by focusing on what he felt rather than what he felt obligated to play.