Eric Clapton Celebrates His 50-Year Career With a Retrospective Show at Madison Square Garden: Concert Recap

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for EC
 Eric Clapton performs at Madison Square Garden on March 19, 2017 in New York City. 

There were no surprises at Eric Clapton’s concert at Madison Square Garden, and that’s exactly how the crowd seemed to want it. The guitar legend -- who recently announced his retirement from touring -- performed the first of only four U.S. dates Sunday night (March 19), and it was a quintessential Clapton show. Forgoing deep cuts or obscurities, the performer delivered a tight, 100-minute set featured a mixture of greatest hits and blues classics that served as musical comfort food to his fans, and the perfect introduction to those who’ve never seen him before.

Although Clapton has told interviewers that nerve pain has impeded his ability to play, there was no sign of it during his performance. As always, he displayed a mastery of dynamics and phrasing, his solos elegant and sinuous. Unlike most guitar gods, his playing is never flashy for its own sake, eschewing showmanship in favor of economy. The downside is that he can sometimes come across as more technically proficient than soulful, with emotional resonance sacrificed as a result.

Still, at age 71, he seems to have lost none of his brilliance. His trademark British understatement was on display during the concert, during which he said little more than “Thank you very much.” He lets his guitar do the talking for him, and, as usual, it said a lot.

Befitting the show’s billing as a celebration of his half-century long career, the set list seemed designed for a retrospective compilation. It featured blues numbers that Clapton by now has made his own, including the opening “Keys to the Highway,” Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” and the Robert Johnson covers “Little Queen of Spades” and “Cross Road Blues.” The evening also included songs representing Clapton’s stints with Cream and Derek and the Dominos, as well as his long association with J.J. Cale (“Somebody’s Knocking,” “Cocaine”).

Of course, Slowhand wasn’t operating in a vacuum. He had the support of his superb band, which included such venerable members as drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Nathan East, and, perhaps the evening’s most valuable supporting player, keyboardist Chris Stainton, who contributed many rollicking solos. Singers Sharon White and Sharlotte Gibson delivered soulful, bluesy back-up vocals buttressing Clapton’s thinning voice. The no-frills production featured little more than a large screen featuring trippy, psychedelic visuals.

Most of the arrangements felt familiar, save for Clapton’s solos that frequently went off in unexpected directions. The most notable was a long, jazzy intro to “I Shot the Sheriff” that teased the audience until they cheered when they heard the familiar opening notes. He performed “Layla” in the now usual slowed-down, acoustic format, although his vocal seemed even wearier and more resigned than usual. That song was part of a seated acoustic set that also included “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and the smash hit “Tears in Heaven.”

Needless to say, the crowd was most responsive to the hard rocking numbers, including the show-closing “Cocaine” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” The latter number figured in the encore, for which Clapton also brought out openers Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan for a sizzling version of the Bo Diddley song “Before You Accuse Me.”

With Clark Jr. and Vaughan as the opening acts, the show had the feel of a mini Crossroads Guitar Festival. Each delivered impeccable, fiery sets, with the former providing a touching element to the proceedings by paying tribute to the late Chuck Berry (who passed away on March 18), “That last number wouldn’t have been possible without the influence of Chuck Berry.”

Set List

Key to the Highway
Badge
I’m Your Hoochie Coochie ManDriftin’ Blues
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Tears in Heaven
Layla
Somebody Knocking
Wonderful Tonight
Cross Road Blues
Little Queen of Spades
Cocaine

Encore

Sunshine of Your Love
Before You Accuse Me


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