Middle-age crazy

What, no "Layla?" Eric Clapton still plays a mean guitar but concert leaves audience wanting more

Eric Clapton concert leaves audience wanting more

Eric Clapton, Toyota Center, March 2013
Eric Clapton has always preferred to let his guitar do the talking. Photo by Jane Howze
Eric Clapton, couple dancing, Toyota Center, March 2013
A couple dancing in the row at the Eric Clapton concert spawned the evening's only excitement. Photo by Jane Howze
Eric Clapton, Toyota Center, March 2013
Eric Clapton, couple dancing, Toyota Center, March 2013

Midway through Eric Clapton's 50th Anniversary Tour, which touched down at the Toyota Center Saturday night, not many in the decidedly older audience had stood up from their seats, even though warm applause greeted the fabled British singer/guitarist after each song.

(Looking at the sold-out crowd, a friend remarked this was not their first concert and given the ages of many, it could well be their last.)

 Oblivious to the fracas, Clapton continued his performance in the way he had all night. He was the consummate professional if not much of a showman.  

But when Clapton launched into "Wonderful Tonight,"  a middle-aged couple two rows down from us couldn't contain themselves. They jumped up and began slow dancing in the middle of their row, they bodies tightly intertwined as if they were reliving their youth when the song was first released in 1977.

The sight was apparently too much, as one person tossed a beverage at them and another middle-aged rocker complained loudly. A war of words ensued as friends stepped in to prevent a full-fledged brawl. A cop eventually was called to the section, one of the couples left and everything calmed down as Clapton's band, coincidentally, played "How Long (Has This Been Going On?)."

It was the most exciting thing that happened the entire evening.

Oblivious to the fracas, which was far away from the stage, Clapton continued his performance in the way he had all night. He was the consummate professional if not much of a showman. 

Other than "Good evening," "Thank you," and mumbling the names of his band members, the 67-year-old singer/guitarist hardly said anything throughout the nearly two-hour performance. Until he played and sang the Cream hit, "Crossroads" (the 17th song in the evening's 21-song set), he didn't move from the center of the stage — and then he only walked briefly to stage right a couple of times without acknowledging the audience.

After 50 years in the business, Clapton does not appear to feel the need to impress anyone in what might be one of his last large concert tours. (He said he plans to quit touring at age 70.) Unlike a Paul McCartney who winks, grins, and charms the socks off of everyone in an arena, Clapton has always preferred to let his guitar do the talking. 

And, boy, can he still play a mean guitar.

On a stage in front of a simple black curtain backdrop, Clapton opened with a charmer, "Hello Old Friend," from his 1976 album, No Reason to Cry, and then riffed and jammed through a host of bluesy tunes, including "Little Queen of Spades"(a 1937 song written by bluesman Robert Johnson and recorded by Clapton in 2004) and "Black Cat Bone," from his just released album, Old Sock. 

Throughout the evening, you got the feeling that Clapton would be just as happy jammin' with his music pals in a small, smoky New Orleans joint rather than in a cavernous auditorium — or even in a room with no one else around at all. For him, it really is all about the music.

And the camera person flashing the images on the Jumbo screens around the vast arena seemed to agree, as close-ups of Clapton's hand performing a particularly intricate riff on the guitar were continuously displayed in larger-than-life fashion.

In one of evening's highlights, Clapton sat on a chair with an acoustic guitar in an extended set and simply played and sang a series of quiet songs —  “Driftin’ Blues, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out," the achingly beautiful “Tears In Heaven,” “Goodnight, Irene” (a great sing-along tune) and the previously mentioned “Wonderful Tonight."

Not surprisingly, Clapton got the most applause for his greatest hits, including "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Cocaine," which was the real high of the evening as most of the audience finally jumped up and danced. But many fans were shocked he didn't perform "Layla," considered one of rock music's most definitive love songs. Clapton performed it to wild applause in Phoenix when he kicked off the tour a few days ago, but for some inexplicable reason omitted it from the Houston show.
 
Even so, if not overly demonstrative, the audience was appreciative and you could still feel the love for Clapton. It just seemed odd to leave a concert wanting more.