June 12, 2009
Reviewed by Ken Kirsh
I walked into the Izod Center in Rutherford, NJ for the Clapton Winwood concert hoping but not expecting to see a great show. I walked out feeling I actually experienced something quite special.
While both men are in their 60’s they played and sang with the same passion, energy and quality as when they were teenagers. Individually their talents are amazing; together they are staggering. It’s clear, too, that their place in rock is occupied by not only by innovation but also a high degree of intelligence and feel.
It has always been about the music for Clapton and Winwood. No fireworks, no wasted motion, no inane remarks or overstated gratitude which would only have cheapened their presentation and conveyed the sense that they actually thought more of themselves than their audience. They don’t talk up or down to you, they simply share what they have, least of which is something to prove.
The set list was as masterfully chosen as the material itself, with great pace and precision, hit after hit. (Truth be told, it was nearly identical to their three show micro-tour at Madison Square Garden last year, before the two decided to turn that short stint into a real tour this year.) Together with Chris Stainton (Keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Abe Laboriel, Jr. (Drums), they delivered solid blues rock tunes that never overstayed their welcome.
Though their voices are very different, they blend well on every tune. They traded solos and even lead vocals within a number of songs which gave the material a fresh sound and demonstrated just why these guys work so well together. It’s hard to argue there’s been a better guitarist/keyboardist pairing in blues, rock or pop in the last forty years.
Their own songs are masterfully crafted and those they cover are arranged and put across with their own inimitable styles. Seeing a one-of-a-kind-performer is something; seeing two one-of-a-kind performers is something else.
I get the impression Clapton is very much in control, the “older brother” as Winwood has described their relationship. The arrangements had a very organized structure to them, very locked-in, enhanced by Stainton, Weeks and Laboriel incredibly tight, musical support, yet there were ample opportunities for improvisation. A kind of control and balance that enhanced the experience.
Those of us who were around to hear Blind Faith’s music when it first came out knew it was special but could never had imagined just how well it would hold up four decades later. (Truth is, those of us who were there probably didn’t think beyond the weekend much less years later.)
Every song was a standout and well played, and the sonic fabric they created,
instrumentally and audio-wise, was warm, even and easy on the ears. I don’t think these legendary artists have lost anything and have probably gained.
Seeing them play the Blind Faith repertoire since its release 40 years ago this summer, was less nostalgic than it was natural. Perhaps this is because the idea of the tour was organic, borne of Winwood’s appearance at Clapton’s 2007 Crossroads concert. Without the over-anticipation that surrounds talk of other reunions, there’s little speculation and hype, no pressure or expectation. This tour eventually had to be; it just didn’t have to be talked about. That the NJ show took place just three days after the 40th anniversary of the legendary Hyde Park Concert, added a kind of poetic quality.
Steve Winwood, with too many credits to single any out here, still gets highest honors for playing the most soulful keyboard—whether on piano or organ.
Winwood is an alchemist with the Hammond, as evidenced throughout the show and particularly during his unaccompanied and hypnotic performance of Georgia.
Whatever the song, it’s not Winwood’s keyboard technique per se that’s remarkable—while it’s plenty good as it needs to be—as much as the notes he chooses, arriving and departing from each one with equal finesse. What’s really scary though is that he more than holds his own on guitar playing next to one of the greatest icons of the guitar in Eric Clapton. There just isn’t anyone in all of rock music who compares with Steve Winwood’s multi-dimensional fluency and feel on both keys and guitar, depth and breadth of songwriting, and unique high tenor voice that takes you to church, the backstreets and another world all at the same time.
Winwood has been playing “Glad” from “John Barleycorn Must Die” on the Hammond which has been unsatisfying the past several I've seen him. That we got to hear him play it this time on piano, though we did miss the sax parts that were adequately covered by Clapton and company, was a real treat. These are iconic blues piano riffs that still sound like nothing else.
Clapton chose to play a few of the JJ Cale songs he made famous, all of which sounded crisp and with renewed energy (especially Cocaine, which closed out the set). His versions of Hendrix’s Little Wing and Voodoo Child, played toward the very end of the night, were among the jammiest of the night and the times when Clapton really went for it, taking the nearly 20,000 people in the arena with him.
His playing was loose yet precise, very melodic and with just the right amount of technique to say what he wanted to without the overpowering clutter and technique found in so many guitarists—imitators and otherwise. When Eric Clapton plays the guitar, he actually makes you feel something. Is that really so rare these days? I think so.
The unexpected choice of the evening was Winwood’s “Split Decision” (co-written with Joe Walsh) from the 1986 album “Back in the High Life”. Overshadowed by the hits on that collection, Grammy-winning Higher Love among them, the band helped Winwood really put across the blue-eyed soul he’s known for in this overlooked gem found toward the end of that album. The song had feel out the ass and was shrewdly placed toward the end of the show, just before the Hendrix tunes.
In a nutshell, these guys rocked the way high quality blues rock should. They work so well as a team 40 years later, it’s as if they've never stopped playing together.