Nobody flew. Nobody danced. Nothing exploded. Nobody changed costumes or leaped out of an illuminated fog bank or lip-synched while performing gymnastic flips.
What happened at Time-Warner Cable Arena Tuesday night was a simple, old-fashioned rock concert that astounded skeptics, satisfied fans and reminded all present of the enduring wizardry of guitarist Eric Clapton, who explored highways and byways from five decades of his catalog.
In human years, Clapton is 68. (His birthday was Saturday.) In guitar years, he’s timeless. Music seems to stream from him the way it did from Ravi Shankar in his old age.
Until Clapton grinned at fellow guitarist Doyle Bramhall II during the final encore, he wore two expressions while he played. Sometimes he turned his eyes down, like a meticulous jeweller at his workbench; sometimes he turned them up and tilted his head back, like a mystic scanning the heavens. Though he sang passionately (and with a clearer voice than he did on the recent “Old Sock” album), his fingers appeared to be following their own paths.
Someone expecting a greatest-hits package might’ve been disappointed: He didn’t play “After Midnight,” “Let It Rain,” “Lay Down Sally” or especially “Layla.” (Does a master chef serve everything he knows how to cook at one meal?)
He opened with a gently acoustic “Hello Old Friend” and closed with the Joe Cocker rave-up “High Time We Went” – doubly apt, because Chris Stainton wrote it with Cocker and now plays a powerfully jazzy piano in Clapton’s band.
A bounty came in between: Depression-era ballads, a rocker from Cream (a jaunty “Sunshine of Your Love”), bits of Derek and the Dominoes (a blazing “Tell the Truth”) and an unmissable Robert Johnson trio: “Stones in My Passway,” “Love in Vain” and a steamy, slightly slowed “Crossroads.”
Clapton shares the stage with good musicians and really shares it. Bramhall made the most of his solos, which were never mere filler. Bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Jordan nailed down a heavy beat. (Jordan might have outgunned Cream’s Ginger Baker on “Sunshine.”) Greg Leisz’ pedal steel guitar gave “My Woman’s Got a Black Cat Bone” extra bluesiness, and backup vocalists Michelle John and Sharon White added unobtrusive weight to Clapton’s vocals.
Paul Carrack, wearing what looked like a Fats Waller derby as he played keyboards, sang two numbers he’d done with Squeeze (“Tempted”) and Ace (“How Long”), while Clapton supplied tasteful solos. These interludes didn’t look like a tired senior citizen taking a brief rest, but like a musician enjoying his cohorts’ skills.
It’s facile to assume a performer’s life must seep into his art, though songs such as “My Father’s Eyes” and “Tears in Heaven” are obviously autobiographical. (Both got tender acoustic treatments Tuesday.)
Yet Clapton’s playing has a serenity I didn’t see when he came though Charlotte 30 years ago. Sobriety and a new family seem to have settled him in recent years, and he plays with seen-it-all strength.
By contrast, the 40-ish musicians of The Wallflowers look like kids. They came on to the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over,” the title of their latest album, and launched into a tight 40-minute set with “The Devil’s Waltz,” one of their strongest songs. (For once, a rock concert began right on time.)
Each number followed the same pattern: A mid-tempo beat, soulful delivery by lead singer Jakob Dylan, build-up to a crescendo with rough-edged guitar and roiling keyboards.
That’s an effective approach, but it’s monochromatic. And the guy coming along behind them was a musical rainbow.