When Eric Clapton's tour plans brought him to St. Paul, Minn., 20 years ago, he ended up in the hospital and was literally knocking on heaven's door after being diagnosed with ulcers caused by his boozing and painkillers.
Now clean and sober, Clapton's return to St. Paul Tuesday night was a triumph for the three-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. For two hours, he and his crack band delivered faithful renditions of blues standards and a smattering of Clapton’s radio hits to a tidal wave of applause. And Clapton never stopped smiling.
This jaunt, meant to support Clapton’s new record, "Reptile," has been an eventful one so far. Shortly after it began in February, Clapton announced that this would be his final world tour. (The St. Paul show at Xcel Energy Center was the beginning of the tour's second leg, with stops still planned in the western U.S. and Asia.) By mid-tour, Clapton became a father again when his 25-year-old girlfriend gave birth to a daughter. Around the same time, his keyboardist, former Beatles collaborator Billy Preston, was hospitalized because he’s in the final stages of kidney disease. Preston missed some concert dates, but has since returned to the tour.
Getting Tuesday’s show started was guitar god-in-training, Doyle Bramhall II, and his powerhouse four-piece, Smokestack. Although Bramhall and the band appeared completely bored during their half-hour set, they were impressive. The group's blues-rock fusion was gigantic and filled the arena. Most of the songs they played sounded like the bastard children of Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks" and Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." (Read the review of Bramhall’s latest release).
When Clapton took the stage at 8:30 p.m., he promptly sat on a chair, grabbed his acoustic guitar and dove into a solo version of the blues gem, "Key To The Highway." Garbed in a white button-down shirt, blue jeans, white and orange sneakers and his hair and beard cut short, Clapton was bouncing in his seat and rocking in rhythm with every pluck of the guitar strings.
The concert, which was split into acoustic and electric sets, included selections from every phase of Clapton’s four-decade career. Almost every song received a standing ovation, forcing band members to exchange sheepish smiles between songs. Clapton frequently kept his head down to hide his grin.
The musical precision that was the hallmark of the night became apparent by the fourth song, when Clapton completed a note-perfect "Tears in Heaven." It was followed by a stunning, acoustic arrangement of "Bell Bottom Blues" that featured ascending backing vocals from Clapton’s longtime sidemen, bassist Nathan East and guitarist Andy Fairweather Low.
Switching to a multi-colored Stratocaster guitar, Clapton started the electric portion with ‘90s single, "My Father's Eyes," and included a no-frills reading of "Hoochie Coochie Man."
His nickname is "Slowhand," but Clapton’s fretwork was swift, nimble and flawless. What was more surprising was how strong Clapton’s voice sounded. For most of his recording career, his voice was a limited croon. Live, Clapton howled and growled the songs, particularly the blues numbers like "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," "Got You On My Mind" and "I Want A Little Girl."
It was during the blues section of the show that Clapton capitalized on his band’s two star keyboard players, Preston and original E Street Band keys man, David Sancious. Several songs featured extended bluesy solos for both men and evolved into keyboard duels. While Preston’s playing was stately and soulful on a two-tiered organ, Sancious’ fingers both raced the distance of the keyboard and pounded on it.
A rough, but rollicking “Cocaine” near the end of the electric set signaled the hit parade was moving closer to culmination. "Cocaine" was followed by an elegant "Wonderful Tonight," which brought a handful of couples into the aisles to slow dance.
The crowd erupted when Clapton nailed a well-executed version of his guitar masterpiece, "Layla." Although the heart of the song was propelled by a three-guitar harmony and Clapton's spine-tingling solos, it was the majestic recreation of the song's famous piano coda that kept the crowd on their feet.
For an encore, Clapton stomped into "Sunshine Of Your Love." Although this version lacked the swing and brutal thump of the original, Preston's and Sancious' tasteful embellishments filled gaps in the melody.
The night ended quietly with an acoustic, shuffling rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz." A syrupy choice, the song was shockingly effective. Clapton's voice soared as it swayed through the lyrics.
When it was all over, Clapton’s sweet performance brought the crowd to its feet for the night’s largest ovation. As he stood up to leave, Clapton once again smiled broadly and waved goodbye. If the crowd’s reaction was any indication, no one wanted him to go, now or ever.
Second Leg Of Clapton’s "Reptile" Tour: