Eric Clapton, Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 23 May 2011
"This is like walking into my front room," jokes old Slowhand, as he strolls on to the wide, rug-covered stage of arguably the UK's most prestigious venue for the first gig of an 11-night residency.
Sporting baggy jeans, a casual black shirt and a Stratocaster in aqua, he certainly looks at home, as unmoved by the rapturous applause as he would be by an old friend who'd popped round for a cup of tea and a bit of a jam.
Clapton has been criticised on this tour for displaying a lack of passion. But he hasn't needed to strive to please fans with his live show for most of his long career – this is the man, or "God", as he is still known, who used to play lying on his back in an alcohol-induced stupor. The sold-out crowd itches to reward him with a standing ovation from the moment he strums the first chord of Derek and the Dominoes' blues standard "Key to the Highway".
Focusing on a back catalogue that includes stints in The Yardbirds and Cream as well as a wealth of notable solo material, the set only offers a nod to Clapton's latest blues album, released in 2010, with the honky-tonk number "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful".
Time is instead dedicated to old favourites. Covers such as Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man" and Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" (which Clapton took to No 1 in the Seventies) ease the show off the starting blocks while showing off Clapton's effortless flourishes. To call Clapton "masterful" would still be an understatement and the enormous pleasure of watching him play only heightens when he swaps electric for acoustic. An unplugged version of Jimmy Cox's 1923 song "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" finds new resonances and Clapton's own "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight" are as seductive as ever despite his huskier, aged vocals.
Stepping back up a notch for foot-stomping versions of J J Cale's "Cocaine" and Robert Johnson's "Little Queen of Spades", Clapton's fretwork is consistently stunning, matched on the latter by remarkable solo keys from Chris Stainton and Tim Carmon. At the end, the crowd are on their feet for a brief encore of Cream's "Crossroads". Their hero (who hasn't broken sweat), merely waves his offhand thanks and disappears, leaving a legacy of cheers.
To 24 May (www.royalalberthall.com)
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