In the past couple of years, fired once more by the blues that brought him into his profession all those years ago, Eric Clapton has started re-engaging with audiences beyond just the faithful. This first night of his annual Albert Hall week provided confirmation.
For a start, the audience itself, although mostly men of a certain age, had an encouraging number of people of both sexes still well short of 30. They even enjoyed the support act: a noisy but enthusiastic modern US blues outfit led by pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph. The band had a bassist-singer who used his falsetto to sound like Sister Rosetta Tharpe while Randolph himself rocked his pedal steel back and forth and played Jimi Hendrix licks slide-style. Some show.
Clapton's group began after a short pause, Eric dressed demurely in denim jeans and matching blue short-sleeved shirt and wielding his favourite Fender Strat. Made up of two keyboardists, two female singers, an extra guitarist, a five-string bassist and a drummer, the group produced "Let It Rain" that benefited from superbly crisp sound and fine balance: Clapton really does understand this hall's impossible acoustics. He also took the first of a number of stinging guitar solos where his combination of grace, poise and attack thrilled the crowd.
The evening's set was divided into thirds, with this first third combining old-style blues ("Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Want A Little Girl") and familiar songs. Everything was done with conviction. On the otherwise lightweight "Walk Out", Clapton demonstrated just one of the many reasons he is a master improviser: he sees beyond bar lengths, devising phrases that start early, anticipating the first beat in the bar, or curl deliciously over the end of a bar so that the ear is tugged into the next part of the song without even knowing it. In this Clapton not only echoes the greatest blues players like his beloved Robert Johnson, but also Johnson's jazz contemporary, Lester Young. During "I Shot The Sheriff", Clapton also got off an extraordinary solo that showed his understanding of form, building from modest beginnings into a soaring, singing ending of great passion and beauty. The audience gave him a standing ovation at the end.
They were less enamoured of the evening's second third, where the three guitarists sat down at the front of the stage and ran through five Robert Johnson numbers. However brilliantly they were played, the music's formal conventions were evidently too archaic for many. The applause was warm but subdued in comparison with what went before.
Never mind. In the final third stylistic borrowings from Stevies Wonder and Winwood brought some welcome contrast to proceedings, while a slow blues - containing lyrics wrenchingly sung by Clapton asking "have you ever loved a woman so much you felt it was a sin/and all along you know she belongs to your very best friend" - found him essaying a BB King type solo full of power and passion.
Clapton chased this with "Badge", co-written with George Harrison. After that, even though "Layla", "Cocaine" and the encore "Sunshine Of Your Love" were thrillingly played, you felt the evening's concerns had been addressed. Clapton played from the heart, and as well as he ever has.