As the crowd filed into East Rutherford’s IZOD Center Wednesday night (June 10) the sounds of John Lennon, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix blared overhead, triggering already pent-up nostalgia and building the anticipation for the night’s double-bill of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. Soon the veteran British rockers would launch into a two hour-plus set, activating the crowd with the opening rock riff of “Had to Cry Today.” This was the first stop on Clapton and Winwood’s 14-show U.S. tour, and the duo didn’t waste much time bantering with the crowd, concluding most songs with a simple “thank you.” The band packed in a 22-song set of rare selections and favorites that spanned the golden days of Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, and Traffic, as well as both solo careers.
Clapton and Winwood brought the audience back to the early days with their opening numbers, including “After Midnight,” and Sam Myers’ “Sleeping in the Ground” from the classic Blind Faith album. The latter featured Winwood ferociously striking the piano keys and gave Clapton the opportunity to showcase his signature Slowhand strokes for the first time all evening. Clapton’s instrumental selection was simple: two Fender Stratocasters and a Martin acoustic.
Clearly sweating, Clapton stopped for a quick drink before announcing, “This one’s for Hubert” (referring to the legendary blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin) and plunged into “Well Alright,” the seventh song of the set. Clapton moved across the stage as his guitar plucks slipped seamlessly into “Tell the Truth,” a classic that had any fans who were still seated instantly standing and moving. Other favorites included “Forever Man,” and “Can’t Find My Way Home,” which flaunted the rhythmic expertise of keyboardist Chris Stainton and bassist Willie Weeks. Both artists accompanied Clapton and Winwood during last year’s three-night performance at Madison Square Garden.
The pulse slowed down as the band exited to the wings, leaving only Winwood and his Hammond B-3 on stage. In an ode to Ray Charles, Winwood performed a sultry rendition of “Georgia on my Mind” to a speechless crowd. The intimate feel continued as Clapton and the crew returned to the stage for a mini-set of acoustic songs. As Clapton laid his hands on the guitar, the crowd quickly recognized the first notes of “Layla” and a wave of euphoria spread across the venue, lasting for the remainder of the show.
The extended set and the stamina displayed by Clapton and Winwood — now 64 and 61 years old, respectively — was impressive, but at times there were slight signs of fatigue, especially when Winwood stumbled vocally for a second before gaining momentum during “Well Alright” and again during “Driftin’,” when Clapton’s range was a bit limited. But any lapses were covered by the powerhouse backup singers Michelle John and Sharon White, who both joined Clapton’s band in 2004 and sang on his 2005 album, “Back Home.”
In a surprise show conclusion, Clapton and Winwood paid tribute to the late Jimi Hendrix by playing “Little Wing” and “Voodoo Chile,” leaving time for extended jam sessions on both. Clapton replicated Hendrix’s style impeccably, but it was drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. who spread vibrations through the stadium seats. His hard-hitting drum style and building intensity were obvious when, halfway into “Voodoo,” one of his drums actually broke and needed immediate stagehand replacement. Laboriel never wavered and the band played on, closing with “Cocaine” and exiting the stage.
It was clear that the band had left behind a stunned and exhilarated crowd; lighters flickered and cell phones illuminated the dark stadium, and there were no obvious guesses for an encore song. Clapton didn’t keep his fans waiting for long, though, as the band walked back onstage almost immediately after leaving. “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” an unusual choice from Winwood’s solo years, was welcomed with a universal wave of approval from fans. Both Clapton and Winwood left the stage looking upbeat, smiling and laughing among themselves.
Although the tour is not labeled as a reunion, it was obvious that Clapton was thrilled to be playing alongside a familiar friend. Years may have passed, but the talent of the Clapton-Winwood team will always leave crowds wanting more.
Here is Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood’s setlist:
“Had To Cry Today”
“Sleeping in the Ground”
“Presence of the Lord”
“Tough Luck Blues”
“Tell the Truth”
“No Face, No Name, No Number”
“Georgia On My Mind” (Steve Winwood solo)
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”
“Can’t Find My Way Home”
“Dear Mr. Fantasy”