ROCK / Fresh Cream: Eric Clapton - Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Online
IF IT'S February, it must be Eric at the Albert Hall. This current run will take his concerts there past the hundred mark. This year's concerts continue last year's theme, concentrating on a no-frills tour of selected career highlights and an electrified equivalent of his Grammy-grabbing Unplugged tour of the blues.

The effect is to turn the Albert Hall into a blues museum, the reverential atmosphere a million miles removed from the juke-joints in which the music was born and raised. The audience, dominated by chaps whose hair has migrated from the tops of their heads to their chins, mostly sits perfectly still, studying hard rather than entering into the spirit: hardly a head nods, even during the irresistible boogie stomp of Muddy Waters' 'Hoochie Coochie Man', which is some achievement given that it's Little Feat's thunderous drummer Richie Hayward - surely the prototype for The Muppets' Animal - driving things along.

Eric's heroes are given due homage, a couple of numbers each, Clapton switching guitars to replicate the precise tones of Elmore James (a raw, razoring slide) or Freddie King (fierce but fluid stabs), and sticking to a few small, discreet amps rather than walls of Marshalls - except on his Hendrix tribute 'Stone Free', for which he needs the Marshall's feedback capabilities. It's only a partly successful version, its shortcomings exemplifying the differences between the two guitarists: neater and more refined than Hendrix, Clapton is more at home with techniques like string-bending and sustain, on which his own style is built, rather than riding chaos like a bucking bronco.

Eventually, portentous lighting changes herald a Cream segment, starting with 'White Room', which is clearly what the audience has been waiting for. Although his blues homages are done with scrupulous deference to the originals, Clapton's approach to his own career chestnuts is, like Dylan, to keep them fresh by remodelling them: 'Badge' is funked up a little, while for 'Crossroads', he goes into Ry Cooder mix 'n' match mode. It takes the finale of 'Layla', though, to drag the audience off their seats, relieved at having their favourite back again after the sluggish Unplugged acoustic version.

They were, as far as you can tell, satisfied with God's latest earthly manifestation, though Clapton's style is so familiar that most of them must have known what he was going to play before he did. Indeed, the biggest shock was Eric's chosen raiment: eschewing Armani for black T-shirt and patched denims, a bluesman's artisan-wear.