Forever Man

At America West Arena, Eric Clapton's bloated ensemble proves too much of a good thing

For most of the night, America West Arena was merely the picture of reverent adoration.

But there were moments during Eric Clapton's May 25 Memorial Day show when reverence turned to fanaticism, when Slowhand's piercing Strat seemed to lift whole sections of people out of their seats. It happened during "I Shot the Sheriff," and it repeated itself with "Crossroads" and "Cocaine." In every case, it was the same people who responded: Two blond women in front of the stage, a couple of rows of enthused hand-clappers to the left, and, most prominently, to the right, a Kevin Bacon look-alike who felt compelled to get footloose in perfect synchronicity with Clapton's axwork. Through it all, Clapton absorbed the worship in a characteristically stolid manner, wearing his legendary status like a coat that wasn't his usual color, but fit quite comfortably nonetheless.

Such moments offered subtle reminders that Clapton might be the most intriguing mix of humility and ego in the annals of rock. Humble enough to repeatedly offer himself up as a sideman to people like Delaney and Bonnie, Roger Waters and George Harrison, he had enough ego to figure that he knew more than Sonny Boy Williamson when Clapton's Yardbirds backed Williamson on a British tour. Humble enough to credit his greatest album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, to Derek and the Dominos instead of himself, he had enough ego to be disappointed when the resulting name confusion hurt album sales. Humble enough to brand himself a "journeyman" with his 1989 album of that name, he had enough ego to feel competitive when a true revolutionary like Jimi Hendrix entered the scene.

Both his humility and ego are justified. As a record-maker, Clapton has churned out one serviceable, unspectacular piece of product after another over the past three decades, with only a couple of masterworks to break the monotony. Yet, as a live performer, his native sense of taste and undeniable six-string virtuosity don't have to compete with his erratic songwriting skills. At virtually every stage of his career--with the possible exception of some boozy nights in the mid-'70s--Clapton has thrown down onstage with aplomb, regardless of which album he was currently flogging.

That explains the seemingly inexplicable fact that Clapton's legend has grown to new heights in the '90s, though until two months ago he'd released not a single album of new material in the entire decade. The more Clapton removes the focus from his studio meanderings and places it on his live work--e.g., the Unplugged album--the more Godlike he seems to a populace starved for legends who can still cut the mustard.

With that in mind, Clapton's boldest move at America West was kicking off the show with six straight songs from his new CD, Pilgrim. Surely he knew that even a hint of "Layla" or "Lay Down Sally" would've incited mass euphoria, yet he quietly demanded patience, which the loving crowd gave him in bushels.

It was easy to see why Clapton elicits such unique devotion from baby boomers. Slowhand is one of the few performers who can take the uninspiring environs of a huge sports arena and create a genuinely musical experience. At America West, he came out in spartan garb, with a black Nike tee, black pants and black deck shoes. He offered no visual flash or clever banter. He had enough confidence to put the entire focus on the musical interplay happening onstage.

Taken individually, Clapton's new tunes were tolerable (particularly the single "My Father's Eyes"), but taken in bulk, they sounded like one interminable midtempo lounge funk vamp. Only "River of Tears," the kind of lilting ballad that's always been closest to Clapton's heart, stood out amongst the bombast.

Even when E.C. settled into more familiar material, he was dogged by his own grandiose ambitions. Supplementing his already sufficient seven-man band--were two additional guitarists necessary with Clapton on board?--were three female backing vocalists and a group of more than 20 string players. It's a basic tenet of the biz to beware of horn and string sections, because once you've got them onstage, you'll feel compelled to justify their presence by using them on every song. Sure enough, at America West, Clapton went nuts with the orchestral flourishes.

During most of the new songs, the string players were so unobtrusive you hardly noticed them. But as the night wore on, they began throwing their weight around. When they incongruously fired up their bows for "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Cocaine," the vibe became very Electric Light Orchestra, with a touch of Mantovani for bad measure.

Predictably, the finest moments were those when Clapton stripped everything down and let his guitar gently weep without distraction. For instance, a midset acoustic interlude included a lovely solo version of Charles Brown's "Driftin' Blues" and made the most of such recent pop trifles as "Tears in Heaven" and "Change the World." Clapton pressed his luck, however, by trotting out the sleepy acoustic shuffle version of "Layla" that's become a tiresome '90s signature. It was one thing for Clapton to rearrange the song this way for the Unplugged album in 1992. At that point, it had the whiff of novelty. By now, it feels like he's permanently dismembered a great rock anthem and stripped away one of the all-time great guitar riffs, for audiences who don't remember the original anymore.

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