Slowhand’s swan song but still powerful live

By Stu Zolotorow

Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY, USA May 3, 2015

With Phoenix represented to my left, San Francisco to my right, and Brazil down the row, it felt like the entire world had gathered at Madison Square Garden to witness history: Eric Clapton’s last U.S. concert.

Photo by Stu Zolotorow

Unplugged Layla for the last time? Photo by Stu Zolotorow

Before Slowhand hit the stage, a read through the tour program gives you Clapton’s form of a retirement press conference, quiet and classy like the man himself. He says that he is, “leaving the road for real this time,” and asks his fans to “please bear with me, if it looks like I’m struggling up there at times, it’s not like it used to be, but I am determined to share this special birthday with you.”

At 9:00 PM, after a great set from Andy Fairweather Low, Eric’s old touring partner, the legend steps on an American stage for the last time, only seven Royal Albert Hall shows standing between him and retirement. He opens with “Somebody’s Knocking” and “Key to the Highway,” he hasn’t lost a beat over his 50-year career.

After finishing the first few songs, a fan yells, “Layla!” I turned back towards that fan and shouted, “He’ll get to that, don’t rush it.” I had heard the late Levon Helm once yell that to a shouting fan a few years back at a show I was in attendance for.

Eric instead introduced John Mayer to accompany him on Clapton’s 1989 hit “Pretending.” As Mayer was wailing away on his Paul Reed Smith guitar, Clapton was beaming like a proud father watching his own son shred on a six-string.

Later the familiar strains and emotions of “Tears in Heaven” froze the packed MSG crowd — or at least just me. Time stood still as I couldn’t see or hear anything else but Clapton. With his warm voice in perfect pitch and his Martin strings ringing effortlessly without struggle, the place could have gone nuts and I wouldn’t have noticed. He was in his zone, I was in mine.

More acoustic numbers flew by, including the Unplugged version of “Layla” followed by “Drifting Blues” before he plugged in for one final stretch on his Strat. He soothed through the hauntingly beautiful “Wonderful Tonight” without a single hint of struggle.

As George Harrison once said on the “Dark Horse Years,” “He plugs in that Stratocaster thing and it’s Eric. He still has that touch and that vibrato and the choice of notes, it’s just built into him.”

Clapton introduced Doyle Bramhall and Derek Trucks to take the lead for “Let it Rain,” as he was happy to back them up.

His one-song encore was “High Time We Went,” with all of his guests from the two shows on stage. Then he was gone, the final of his 45 Madison Square Garden shows had reached its end.

As the note in the tour program reads, Clapton was “Able to breathe some life into his old stuff.”

Clapton is one of a select few that seems to be going out on his own terms. I’ve recently watched Levon Helm and B.B. King perform until their bodies had nothing left to give to not only the audiences, but also themselves. Now Levon and B.B. are gone and I just can’t bear it.

This Sunday night show with Clapton was a far different form of a goodbye and after the Albert Hall Shows, Slowhand will go out on top, without a struggle.

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