By Scott Serota
Fans of rock legends Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood flocked to the Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ on Wednesday to witness opening night of their 2009 summer US tour. Flanked by an all-star band consisting of Willie Weeks on bass, Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums, Chris Stainton on keys, and with Michelle John and Sharon White holding forth on backup vocals, the team journeyed effortlessly through the four-plus decades of musical history that had made them bona fide legends, unearthing no less than 22 cuts from Traffic, Derek and the Dominoes, and Blind Faith's catalogs- to classic solo material from their seminal 70s and 80s periods along with some rare surprises.
For those lucky enough to have witnessed the duo's reunion last February at Madison Square Garden, a rare and special show in its own right, opening night of the 2009 tour in New Jersey offered a world of refinements for even the most discriminating listener. This concert added a compelling and intimate new dimension to their formidable prowess that somehow Madison Square Garden couldn't facilitate.
Blind Faith may have lasted barely seven months at their apex, but the group's debut (and farewell) album remains a de facto masterpiece of classic rock even by today's standards. Precious few archival recordings exist of their now mythical US tour in July and August 1969, and even fewer written accounts have been published.
So it came as no surprise when more than 16,000 roaring devotees filled the stadium on a Wednesday night in New Jersey for the chance to witness the historic reunion.
'It's already written that today will be one to remember...'- "Had To Cry Today", Blind Faith, 1969
Pitch-perfect, crystal clear, and full of youthful energy, as if four decades had only reinforced the power and character of his voice since first committing those words to tape as a 21-year old in 1969 - as soon as Steve Winwood delivered that opening line, a veritable electric current went through the stadium. It was the sound of a voice that had not only survived the 60s miraculously unscathed and intact, but also one whose character had evolved and matured in the decades that followed.
The two icons went on to nail the entire side-A of their debut album before this sold-out stadium, replete with extended jams and vintage '60s goodness, interspersed with Winwood's "Glad" "Split Decision" "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and a stunning version of "Georgia on My Mind" that would make Ray Charles proud, with masterful vintage B-3 organ licks swirling out of the rotating Leslie speakers and into the New Jersey night. Winwood sang the song as if it were a prayer: full of grace, power, and reverence. This was more than just a love song to Georgia.
The fans were feeling it too. As Clapton returned to the stage, three chairs were arranged in a half-circle. There was a unique sense of intimacy in the air, and as if in response Clapton delivered a gorgeous and mellow "Driftin" with Steve and Willie on acoustic. That kicked off a set of cuts from Clapton's famed Unplugged album, including "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," and a rare acoustic "Layla" which was not performed at MSG, with Steve and Eric trading verses and solos.
Even for those who had dutifully memorized every note of the Unplugged album seventeen years before, to watch Clapton deliver his acoustic revelation before a mesmerized stadium of 16,000, to hear each meticulously crafted note in splendid detail was nothing less than incredible. He seemed to be accessing a richer palette of colors than previously evidenced on the original live masterpiece, breathing new life into his distinguished catalog.
As the two launched into the hypnotic intro section of their trademark "Can't Find My Way Home," trading mellifluous lines, smiling, and reveling in the roar of the crowd, one got the sense that the two were veterans, brothers in arms- that the night was not only a celebration of the music itself but also of surviving history together.
In that spirit, the duo paid homage to their friend, collaborator, and mentor Jimi Hendrix with a spellbinding, passionate "Little Wing" and "Voodoo Chile". Drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. seemed to simultaneously channel Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles, Winwood expertly conjured up the B3 voodoo as he did on the original Electric Ladyland, and Clapton exercised some legendary magic…. transforming the arena into something of a séance. There were moments towards the end of "Voodoo Chile" wherein 16,000 people became completely hushed. Lighters aloft, they sat enraptured at every muted note, each lightly tickled key- a collective prayer of gratitude for the genius of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Steve Winwood.
Clapton then delivered a blistering "Cocaine", firing on all cylinders as if he had just taken the stage. It was hard to imagine that the 130-minute set was drawing to a close, but the band took a bow and left the stage amid thunderous applause, returning moments later to deliver the epic "Dear Mr. Fantasy," an encore that left the crowd energized and hungry for more.
As the throngs filtered out of the arena, through the cavernous maze of pedestrian tunnels and out into the summer night, the air buzzed with admiration and praise. Fans clustered around RVs blasting the MSG concert DVD in HD and surround sound, drinking beer and swapping stories of how they had traveled six hundred miles to be at the first show. They were fifty and they were fifteen, from all walks of life, old hippies and young hipsters, and for one night in Jersey we were all there.