Music Reviews

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Staples Center, Los Angeles
Wednesday, March 14


Casual fans who were hoping for a parade of Eric Clapton's radio hits were disappointed Wednesday, or at least mildly frustrated. Then again, there was enough guitar mastery onstage at Staples Center to satisfy a blues stickler, a rock die-hard, even a pure metalhead.

While Clapton's effortless playing might not conjure the power of yore, he's nowhere near ready for the rocking chair. Spurred on by a typically ace band of sidemen, including pose-free guitarists Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II, Clapton piloted a two-hour evening of laconic cool, punctuated by bursts of six-string brilliance.

The show kicked off with five songs from the Derek and the Dominos era that segued into a continuous jam, with Trucks and Bramhall taking turns on the early solos and the latter adding some lead vocals. The early standout was "Got to Get Better in a Little While," a lengthy workout that gave bassist Willie Weeks his spotlight time and featured some James Brown-style foot-shufflin' funk.

Clapton sat down for a gripping solo acoustic take on Charles Brown's "Driftin' Blues," which showed that he still has a command of his instrument and, to a lesser extent, his forced-gruff vocals. Most of the band then sat together for a back-porch session that included "Running on Faith," one of the few Clapton solo numbers in the 16-song set, and Cream's "Outside Woman Blues."

A take on Robert Johnson's "Little Queen of Spades" gave the supporting cast a real opportunity to work. After an extended keyboard solo by Britrock staple Chris Stainton, Bramhall got his, and Trucks followed with an intense, biting slide. Then Clapton stepped in to ice the cake with back-bending elegance. The dynamic of escalating solos capped by the thrice-inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recurred throughout the show.

The crowd ranging from grandparents to gradeschoolers seemed starved for a hit when "Motherless Children" gave them an excuse to perk up, as all three guitarists worked the Southern-twanged signature slide lick. The laid-back Trucks' disciplined, economic style has more than a hint of Duane Allman, but he was hesitant to really let loose, as if careful not to overshadow the headliner.

Those familiar with Trucks' playing likely were curious as to how he'd tackle the Allman parts on set-closer "Layla." Happily, he chose not to simply re-create one of rock's most enduring guitar duels, preferring to take a detached though still similar path. It was a predictable highlight.

Longtime crowd favorite "Cocaine" began the encore, its ineffectual riff giving way to a number of solo instrumental gems. Opener Robert Cray joined the band for the show-closing "Crossroads," which was slowed from Cream's classic live take. Cray sang the first verse and took a solo, followed by Bramhall, then Trucks. Again, the master finished it off.

With legacy intact and nothing to prove, Clapton -- who turns 62 in two weeks -- often was content to cede the spotlight, and this tight band was eager to oblige. But while he's not the sole focal point, that doesn't make it any less of a treat to see him live. Every rock fan should, even now.
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