No flash but a steady fire for Clapton fans

Staff WriterMarch 10, 2010 

— Twenty years ago, Eric Clapton put out an album called "Journeyman," a title that seemed like a self-effacing joke. But that's what Clapton has become as he approaches his 65th birthday, a journeyman bluesman like the old-timers he came up idolizing, and it suits him.

Of course, being rock royalty does have its privileges, such as drawing enough fans to pack the house to the RBC Center on a Monday night, even without a new album to draw attention. The crowd got a comfortably paced 100-minute performance that was quite good, if not particularly energetic. Clapton spent fully one-third of it sitting down playing acoustically, which cut down on the fireworks quotient, and he truly stretched out on guitar only for a couple of songs.

Monday's show did offer a rare opportunity to see two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on the same bill, with Roger Daltrey serving as opening act. Daltrey noted that this tour represents his first support slot since The Who opened for The Rolling Stones in 1964 -- "and they did all right for themselves," he said drolly.

With a shorter time onstage, Daltrey played a tighter and less self-indulgent set than the one he played at the Durham Performing Arts Center in October. Of course, Who songs provided the highlights, especially "Young Man Blues" (complete with his patented microphone-lasso move), "Baba O'Riley" and a ripping "Who Are You." At the end of 50 minutes, Daltrey got a well-earned standing ovation.

If Daltrey came on like a blazing inferno, Clapton was more like a fire banked down to warm embers. He entered with no fanfare, swung into "Going Down Slow" and went about his business with a minimum of fuss. "Good evening," "Thank you" or "Good night" was as chatty as he got.

In contrast to some of Clapton's big bands of tours past, his backup group was quite Spartan -- two keyboardists, two backup singers, bass, drums and Clapton himself as the only guitar player. You might expect a riff-fest from that, but most of the show was in a mellow tone.

He did his most impassioned playing on "Old Love" and Bo Diddley's "Before You Accuse Me" (both from the aforementioned "Journeyman" album), plus the obligatory Robert Johnson offerings of "Little Queen of Spades" and the closing "Crossroads."

At five songs, the acoustic interlude went on just a shade too long and was hit or miss. "Running on Faith" worked well, and Clapton playing "I've Got a Rock N' Roll Heart" acoustically meant we were spared from seeing the accompanying T-Mobile commercial on the video screens.

But would someone please persuade him to retire the acoustic, lounge-lizard version of "Layla" for good? What was once kind of a cool change-up long ago hardened into gimmicky schtick, and it's an emasculation of one of the great classic-rock riffs. Ugh.

Otherwise, it's a measure of the depth of Clapton's catalog that so many of his most distinctive songs went missing, including "After Midnight," "Let It Rain," "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Lay Down Sally." But he did offer up "I Shot the Sheriff," "Wonderful Tonight" and, of course, "Cocaine." And everybody hollered and jumped up and down just like they always do.

He's good.

david.menconi@newsobserver.com, blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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