New York, New York
February 28, 2008
Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton's three nights of shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City at the end of February 2008 constitutes flying under the proverbial radar. In the wake of the rumor mill working overtime on further Led Zeppelin touring, and the latest installment of the hype fest for The Police reunion, these two venerable British rockers generated no media overkill, legitimate or contrived, with their February 2008 run.
It was in keeping with this low profile that the duo, with a compact and tight band in tow, wisely rendered a setlist containing surprises for every "I told you so" moment. But in keeping with the deceptive nature of a mere tally of tunes, Winwood and Clapton spent two and a half hours surpassing expectations in unforeseen ways.
Notwithstanding the stillborn nature of their 1969 collaboration in Blind Faith, it requires only watching these men perform on the same stage to realize what complementary talents they are. Nullifying the question of whether Steve Winwood's voice has changed at all in four decades, much less lost any range whatsoever, the emotion seemed to pour forth whenever he opened his mouth—not just during his solo spot on "Georgia On My Mind."
Winwood's singing is every bit the expressive tool that is Eric Clapton's guitar work, and on Thursday, the latter more than once demonstrated why he is the ultimate role model for guitar heroism. Playing Otis Rush's "Double Trouble," a slow blues he's been performing since his days with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers over forty years ago, Clapton's solos and fills around his emotive singing had the intensity of an exorcism of multiple demons (understandably so, given his document of same so ineffectually depicted in his autobiography).
The aptly-nicknamed "Slowhand" (he never does seem to play fast, no matter how high-speed the flurry of notes) was also a man possessed during the late-set exploration of Jimi Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile." Not coincidentally standing closer to Winwood's keyboards stage right than he did all evening, Clapton made all too apparent the solace gained from his bandmate's presence: Winwood, in fact, played a deceptively crucial role in elevating his partner's performance (not to mention his own debt to the late guitar icon with whom he played on the original 1968 recording, from Electric Ladyland, Experience Hendrix, 1993). The lyrics, rife with interplanetary imagery, he delivered as if an incantation.
The founder of Traffic is self-effacing to the point of seeming shy yet is arguably the more talented of the pair, in his own versatile way, playing organ, piano and guitar with elegant and soulful facility. The ghostly atmosphere Winwood generated with his singing throughout much of the show became a hush over the arena audience with his almost-whispered take on Traffic's "No Face No Name No Number," that seemingly ageless voice gently and gracefully traversing the contours of its exquisite melody.
That performance alone was an act of musicianly wisdom representative of the careful means by which Winwood and Clapton devised their choice of songs. The dual frontmen, as equally and fairly as possible, highlighted their own history, their respective talents and the latent desires of the (third in a row) sold-out crowd. For every questionable choice like "Split Decision," there was a "Pearly Queen," with its gnarly extended guitar coda. Likewise, Eric's scalding solo made "After Midnight" worth hearing again because it no doubt reminded his longstanding faithful fans why they were originally so impressed with the deep passion and deceptive simplicity in his playing.
"Cocaine" might have been an all-too-predictable set closer—scarcely more or less so than "Crossroads" from the first night—but with "Dear Mr. Fantasy" as an encore, leaving the image of Steve Winwood last in the memories of the concertgoers, the two stars offered one more example of respectful deference to one another during the course of their time on stage (and could there have been a more gracious gesture than for Clapton to surrender top billing to Winwood?—there are, after all, levels of stardom). And that's not to mention the gratified smiles of satisfaction exchanged between the two principals, expressions visible to all on the video screens hanging on either side of the stage. Even if the lighting had been less perfunctory and more stylish, the theatrical effects would still have been superseded by the drama of Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton side-by-side playing Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing."
The up-tempo close to "Mr. Fantasy" might well have taken the quintet—including bassist Willie Weeks, keyboardist Christ Stainton (once of Joe Cocker's original Grease Band), and drummer Ian Thomas—into the previously-noted Robert Johnson tune but, as it was, the sequence in which the set progressed left room for creative options within the choice of songs and illuminated a dynamic interplay in the relationship between Winwood and Clapton. Coupling Traffic's instrumental "Glad" with Buddy Holly's "Well Alright" (from the Blind Faith album) made musical sense and underscored the earthy undercurrent of that group's sole recording: Clapton's fascination at the time with The Band's Music From Big Pink was a prime motivation for his formation of the new group with Winwood after leaving Cream, and it was here that the elements of country and gospel at the heart of the instrumental lineup were most apparent.
Eric's solo blues performance of "Kind Hearted Woman" might some day be part of an extended acoustic interlude with Steve that would contain a pure acoustic version of "Can't Find My Way Home"-different from the semi-electric arrangement near set's end this night. And certainly Winwood and Clapton's affinity for the blues is one of their more fundamental bonds: on the Blind Faith outtake, "Sleeping in the Ground," the band moved at a jaunty rhythm below the acerbic guitar and knowing vocals.
Such shared sense of history in the roots of their music extends to the natural chemistry of the two principals. Clapton has taught himself to be a fairly good singer over the years, and he sang with uncommonly unself-conscious abandon across the stage from Winwood, particularly when the latter joined him on the cull from Derek and the Dominos' Layla "Tell the Truth." Its ringing riff the ideal opening, "Had to Cry today" found Winwood and Clapton engaging in guitar crosstalk that radiated the joy of improvisation as well as professional redemption. And "Them Changes," their funky homage to Buddy Miles, who had died two days prior (on their opening night the 26th), was celebratory rather than elegiac.
It's only natural to hope for additional collaboration from these two headliners, if for no other reason than that, more than once during this performance, the larger-than-life monitored images caught an admiring glance from one man to the other.
More importantly, there's room for the two to grow as a creative partnership, so that the spark of inspiration that caught fire this third mid-winter Manhattan night, rescued from the suffocating embers of personal friction and management snafus in its first incarnation, might flourish in full on a recurring as well as enduring basis.