Last Night At The Garden (Show Report)

By Scott Tribble

March 5th, 2008

'And then New York drowns as we hold hands.'

Toward the end of Thursday's show at Madison Square Garden, Steve Winwood sang this line from another time, another place, and another famed collaborator. But, on this particular evening, the lyric spoke to Winwood's chemistry with longtime friend Eric Clapton. The two had performed together only sporadically since their Blind Faith days, but last week joined forces for three historic concerts in New York City. The moon did not turn fire red, but nevertheless the musicianship of these two legends lit up the arena and thrilled the capacity crowd.

The final show began as the previous two had, with Blind Faith's "Had To Cry Today." Winwood and Clapton each took turns on the propulsive guitar riff, with the latter tearing through the initial solos. As on the album version, the two played different leads during the dizzying outro, but, nearly forty years later, the shrieking and wailing notes still intertwined uncannily. Willie Weeks and Ian Thomas simultaneously provided a hefty bottom end, with the latter's heavy foot supplying-as it would all evening-a driving and powerful stomp.

Early crowd favorites included an urgent "Forever Man"- which featured a potent mix of crackling guitar, heated Hammond organ, as well as funky electronic keyboards from Chris Stainton-and "Changes," performed as a tribute to the late Buddy Miles. Winwood delivered a particularly energetic vocal on the latter song, and, in a rare sight indeed, briefly stopped playing his guitar while belting out the frenetic melody.

During the middle numbers, the two stars stretched out during several lengthy instrumental passages. With Winwood laying down chords on the organ, Clapton explored the various twists and turns of the Traffic classic "Pearly Queen," while both ably recast the saxophone parts of "Glad" on piano and guitar. Clapton took center stage for the haunting blues of "Double Trouble," while Winwood served up his own otherworldly fare in a rare performance of Traffic's eerie "No Face, No Name, No Number."

After powering through "Split Decision," the band briefly left the stage, with Clapton tendering a solo version of "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" on acoustic guitar. After allowing his bandmate proper due, Winwood took over on the Hammond and offered a memorable rendition of "Georgia On My Mind." While driving the organ from brooding bassy tones to swirling church-like pipes, Winwood delivered an impassioned vocal that brought the Garden crowd to its feet.

The concert concluded with a string of dramatic performances. The band presented Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" in triumphant Domino fashion, while a second Hendrix cover, "Voodoo Chile," saw Clapton deliver one searing guitar line after another. On the latter tune, Winwood recreated his imaginative organ fills from the original recording, while channeling Hendrix's mystic soul in his vocal. The two stood front and center for the next number, Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," with Clapton's gentle guitar fills perfectly complementing Winwood's soulful yet vulnerable vocals. The stirring classic, which has evolved into something of a hymn over the years, ended with still more dynamic interplay on guitar.

A boisterous version of Clapton's "Cocaine" closed the set, but the band quickly returned for a final encore. On "Dear Mr. Fantasy," Winwood and Clapton once again traded lengthy solos, but, rather than dueling, the guitars were entirely simpatico. Fluid rather than forced, the exchanges seemed borne of mutual respect, forged decades earlier and only deepened through the passage of time. Indeed, the Garden shows were all about chemistry, and longtime fans can only hope that Winwood and Clapton have still more experiments in store.