Concert Review

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood are Musical Chameleons

Clapton began his career with the bluesy stylings of The Yardbirds and then segued into John Mayall's Blues Breakers. In his days with Cream, he slid headfirst into psychedelic rock and later even touched on reggae. To Winwood's credit, he led a similar trek, dabbling in the blue-eyed soul of the Spencer Davis Group and psychedelic rock with Traffic. Both musicians, who boast an ample body of solo work as well, eventually collaborated, along with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech, on the self-titled Blind Faith album, mixing their influences to create yet another Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame-worthy sound.

On Friday night at Arena in Glendale, the duo showed all their colors of their past, taking turns at vocals. Clapton and Winwood came to town on a commercial roll, given the recent release of a CD and DVD documenting their 2008 Madison Square Garden performances. Like the recorded offering, their voices harmonized flawlessly with a rich, mature sound, recapturing the spirit of Winwood and Clapton's original pairing.

Dressed like average middle-aged folks in long button-down shirts and jeans, Winwood, 61, and Clapton, 64, opened with Blind Faith's "Had to Cry Today," a track that featured the Brits producing a thick wall of sound from their Fender Stratocasters. Winwood and Clapton's interlaced solos toward the end of "Had to Cry Today" were awe inducing, as was the pairing for "Sleeping in the Ground," a Sam Myers/Blind Faith outtake. Quickly, the performers went into the blues-infected "Low Down." 
Clapton wasted no time cutting into "After Midnight," which featured Winwood on organ. The guitarist provided a driving train-like rhythm to the timeless track. Clapton took center stage with "Forever Man," a song that generated a rabid response from the near sold-out crowd. One of the highlights of the show was Winwood's enthusiastic organ-driven instrumental of "Glad" by Traffic. As the stage handlers prepared for Clapton's acoustic session, Winwood remained on stage to perform a moving rendition of the standard "Georgia on My Mind" solely on piano. Besides "After Midnight" and "Forever Man," Clapton dug deep in the J.J. Cale songbook to perform "Cocaine." "Low Down" and the 1990s acoustic version of Derek and the Dominoes' "Layla" were on the docket as well.

The talented twosome performed more than 20 songs. An unshaven Clapton stood regally with his guitar while Winwood, in contrast, boogied behind the piano flailing his lower limbs. 
The simplistic stage belied the music. Complemented by an uncomplicated cloth back drop, a wall of 12 video screens emanated psychedelic visuals, while lighting rigs above the stage danced in time to the music.

Winwood and Clapton kept the banter to a minimum, except when the former tried to welcome the crowd to the show. In a truly Simpsonesque moment, he seemed to have forgotten in which city he was performing--until the audience reminded him. Some people could mistake their lack of on-stage interaction for an absence of chemistry. But these elder statesmen of rock simply vibe off of each other thanks to their vast experiences. 

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood at Arena on June 26, 2009.

Better Than: Their original pairing in Blind Faith.

Personal Bias: My husband is English and grew up listening to Clapton, so subsequently I hear the guitar hero around the house.

Random Detail: Even though she had seats well near the stage, one woman insisted on staring at the video screens and crying.

Further Listening: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live From Madison Square Garden.

By The Way: If you ask me, Winwood should have played some of his '80s pop hits so I could relive my university years.

One More Thing: The next logical step for Winwood and Clapton would be to write and record a new album together ... please.

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Christina Fuoco-Karasinski