Hidin' the Blues

Eric Clapton

United Center - Chicago

April 9, 1998

First Appeared in The Music Box, May 1998, Volume 5, #5

Written by John Metzger

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When Eric Clapton released From the Cradle in 1994, he announced that he would no longer perform his old material and from now on would only be playing the blues. Fortunately, he changed his mind sort of. Pilgrim, Clapton's latest release, may include a string section, rhythm and blues backing vocals, and a heavy keyboard presence, but hidden behind all the slick production, at the very heart of the music, Clapton is still playing the blues.

On April 9, Clapton returned to the awful acoustics of the United Center for a pair of shows designed to spotlight the songs from Pilgrim. Many of the cellular phone carrying, status-conscious members of the attendance were somehow under the impression that they were going to see Derek and the Dominoes. But Clapton left that era a long time ago, seeking to further expand his musical range rather than become a classic rock dinosaur destined to perform the same songs night after night, year after year in a tedious, never-ending nightmare.

It shouldn't be a surprise that throughout the evening, Clapton added his usual mind-blowing guitar solos with a fluid ease and grace that few guitarists possess. While these feats were amazing, what really stood out was the quality of his vocal performance. Each vocal outburst charged the songs with an incredible amount of emotion and passion. The new material combined with the last tour's shunning of the older songs seemed to give Clapton an added burst of inspiration, making this one of his better tours in years.

Clapton opened the show by tearing through six songs from Pilgrim. This went largely unnoticed by the audience who remained planted in their seats and frozen in time. Had they given the new material a chance, they might have noticed the remarkable performance that was taking place.My Father's Eyes, though well-played, went nearly unchanged from the recorded version. Instead, it gave Clapton a chance to warm up. Pilgrim took things a little farther as the 20-piece orchestra accompanying him fought its way through the acoustics. The orchestra built the song to a massive wall of sound before breaking to reveal some stellar licks from Clapton. By the time that he hit his guitar solo in One Chance, the third song of the night, he was fully warmed up and not about to hold anything back. With a gruff, blues-based vocal approach he repeatedly sang, "You may never get another chance," before cutting loose with a blistering guitar solo that momentarily captured the crowd's attention.

After the near meltdown of She's Gone, Clapton and his backing band picked up acoustic instruments and embarked on a three-song mini-set that began with a revamped Tears in Heaven. The orchestra added a nice touch to this song, giving it a full, rich sound.Layla was also rewritten, and though it was even further removed from the original version, this rendition tops its first acoustic reincarnation. The highlight of the acoustic set, however, was a spirited Change the World that ended with a beautiful, melodic, rhythmic jam and some wonderful finger-picking from Clapton that somehow managed to escape being swallowed by the acoustics of the United Center.

As the musicians returned to their electric instruments, Clapton served up a series of more traditional blues songs beginning with a lengthy rendition of Old Love, which featured his best guitar solo of the evening as well as an amazing synthesizer solo from Tim Carman. Again, Clapton's voice matched his guitar playing perfectly and carried the pain and anguish of the song as he growled, "Love, leave me alone."

Crossroads was solid but brief, and without warning, the Clapton and his group grooved into a much slower tempo for Have You Ever Loved A Woman. Kenneth Crouch added an excellent keyboard solo to the song, which also featured yet another outstanding vocal performance from Clapton. Much to the audience's dismay, that was the end of the standard blues-fare for the night. Instead, he launched into the reggae-groove of I Shot the Sheriff. His guitar solo began with a laid-back, mellow sound that twisted, turned, and spiraled as the band gradually picked up the intensity in a give-and-take with Clapton that threatened to blow the roof off the arena.

This might have been the highlight of the evening had Clapton not pulled out a positively stunning (and fully rejuvenated) rendition of Wonderful Tonight. His vocals were sweet and tender as he charted a course through the verses. But instead of concluding, Clapton turned things over to backing vocalist Katie Kissoon who built a collage of wordless vocal beauty. As she sang, Clapton stepped to the side and began to add subtle guitar textures that combined with Kissoon's voice to create an aura of magical radiance.

Two hours after taking the stage, Clapton performed a fully-jammed, blistering encore of Sunshine of Your Love. The orchestra came through at exactly the right moments, accenting the song with colorful bursts of psychedelic energy. Somehow, the audience continued to remain seated, rising only to walk out the door when the lights to the arena were turned on.

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Copyright 1998 The Music Box