by Steve Hochman
It was a little Professor Longhair lick by pianist Chris Stainton — under a depiction of the New Orleans music titan hanging over the Acura stage — that brought Eric Clapton’s set fully present into the locale of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. But the Sunday night headlining show, closing out Jazz Fest’s first weekend, never strayed far from the Mississippi Delta and its vast legacy.
The music and its various streams, from Clarksdale to Chicago to New York and all the way to the London of the 1950s and ’60s where a young Clapton was smitten for life, was all vibrantly present in the playing of the guitarist and his band this day.
The blues-centric intent was clear from the very start. Clapton, in a simple gray open-collar shirt and worn blue jeans, strapped on his signature Fender Stratocaster “Blackie” and peeled off a little blues intro solo before the band came in for “Somebody’s Knockin’.” The playing all around was as understated as his appearance, a sense of familiar comfort, but earthily so, true to the music’s origins. That continued with “Keys to the Highway” (which he learned from Big Bill Broonzy’s version and first recorded with Derek and the Dominoes in 1970) and “Pretending,” the Jerry Lynn Williams song that was a Clapton radio hit in 1989. Here, it was given a nicely robust, rumbling tone, on top of which the guitarist mixed skittering cascades of notes and slippery string-bends into his solo.
And there is a comfort in hearing Clapton’s playing, after nearly 50 years in pop consciousness as recognizable as Blackie itself. Noteworthy is that despite that, he can still dazzle and surprise. On Sunday, it was a joy to hear the nuance and grace of the familiar flow spiked by perfectly placed strings, and the flurries of power used with artistic judiciousness, never allowed to become a gimmick but rather saved for just the right moments. With that, “Hoochie Coochie Man,” a Willie Dixon cousin to Yardbirds staple “I’m a Man” and “Tell the Truth,” one of his first solo recordings emerging from his stint with Delaney & Bonnie in his post-Cream period, seemed to have gained power and depth in his delivery — both in playing and singing.
That remained true for the seated acoustic section that formed the middle of the set. “Driftin’” opened with a delicate touch, only to give the more brittle, punctuating notes more bite. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” with its Tin Pan Alley changes, gave him a chance to get a little jazzier in his licks, and made a perfect segue to “Crazy Mama,” written by his long-time friend J.J. Cale, who passed away last year, and then bedrock figure Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” (with Clapton playing some bottleneck slide). Closing the acoustic portion, “Layla” boasted more spark and swing than the hit Unplugged version, perhaps infused with New Orleans via the collaboration three years ago with native son Wynton Marsalis and members of his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Through it all, the band members provided not just solid support but true partnership in the music. For this tour, Clapton put together a group of old friends, English blues and rock veterans, several of whom have been with him for long stretches over the years. Stainton, whose renown goes back to his days leading Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen band, has played alongside Clapton for ages. Guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, a mainstay in the ‘90s and part of the last decade, has now returned. Drummer Henry Spinetti and bassist David Bronze are also alums of past Clapton groups. The most recent arrival is organist Paul Carrack, who over the years sang hits as a member of Ace, Squeeze and Mike + the Mechanics.
The musicians added counterpoint to Clapton’s playing throughout; particularly Fairweather Low, whose rougher guitar edge was clearly evident when he took lead vocals on “Gin House” and got a clear, raw sound from a blonde Stratocaster modified with only a single bridge pickup.
It’s not for nothing that his most recent album is titled Old Sock as the bulk of his recorded output for the past decade-plus has been revisits to the blues catalog and other related material of past eras. In that light, the three Johnson songs and two Cale numbers — the relaxed disquiet of his tunes being the epitome of latter-day blues, “Cocaine” being the second here, of course — were the backbone of the set. “Crossroads” now has an almost gospel aspect to it, with background singers Michelle John and Sharon White adding church-ready tones. No matter what used to be ascribed to the legendary intersection, it’s sacred ground now.
And on the comfort tack, Clapton himself seems most comfortable as an interpreter and as a player. Three times he let others take the lead vocals — most prominently Carrack on his old Ace hit “How Long Has This Been Going On” — but remained fully engaged as a soloist, the way he first bolted into our consciousness all those years ago with the Yardbirds and Cream. Pointedly, even on the encore, generally a cheers-baiting showcase, he stepped out of the spotlight almost entirely, as Carrack took the lead for “High Time We Went,” the rousing R&B shaker written by Stainton and Joe Cocker more than four decades ago.
That was perfect, putting the focus on Clapton the guitarist rather than Clapton the singer and frontman. That’s what he’s always been at his core, through all the phases of his singular career. And it underscored the fact that this was not a hits-driven set, but instead one of solid foundations; a history of music that he has joined and to which he has contributed mightily. Clapton plays like he knows this music was here before him and will continue after him. That an artist of his stature can do that with such grace and confidence is something that can comfort us all.