The anniversaries have been piling up lately for Eric Clapton: his 70th birthday, 50 years since his first appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, and his 200th appearance at the illustrious venue that he started using as his annual London residency back in the 80s.
So there’s been speculation that he might take this opportunity to bow out, but there was no sign of it at the last night of his latest batch of RAH gigs. At the end he thanked us all for showing up and hoped to see us “further down the road”. And you looked in vain for any sign that he might be getting tired, mentally or physically. Instead he delivered, as he invariably does, three or four solos over the course of the evening that left you transfixed in a mixture of awe and pleasure, justifying his position as the world’s most famous guitarist.
How does he do it? A large part of it is down to constantly freshening up his band and his material, ensuring that he stays engaged. Over the years he’s built up a pool of musicians he can call on to make up his band (and who wouldn’t answer the call?). These include a number of guitarists but tonight he’s handling it on his own. On drums is Steve Gadd, a man who appeared on so many records in the 70s he barely left the studio but now enjoys displaying his sublime skills live. Bassist Nathan East has been playing with Clapton on and off for the last 30 years and veteran Grease Band pianist Chris Stainton has been virtually ever-present for the last couple of decades. Paul Carrick on organ is a more irregular presence but what they all have in common, apart from their undoubted talent, is a professional attitude that will not tolerate an indifferent performance.
It’s the same with the songs, many of which also act as an unspoken tribute to the now-departed musicians who have inspired Clapton over the years. Like the opening Somebody’s Knocking by the late J. J. Cale or the following Key To The Highway that Clapton has played in many different ways over the years but tonight follows the version he played with the late B B King on their Riding With The King collaboration.
The powerful Pretending yields the first epic solo of the night from Clapton, after which brief glances between the band indicate that they are ready to roll. There are a few unexpected songs, like Carrick’s You Are So Beautiful in honour of the late Joe Cocker, but many of the regulars have been twisted, some more subtly than others. I Shot The Sheriff and Crossroads get yet another makeover courtesy of Gadd’s restless, vibrant beat while the changes to the acoustic Tears In Heaven and Layla are less obvious but equally effective. Only Wonderful Tonight could be described as perfunctory.
The encore provided another twist with High Time I Went, a Cocker/Stainton song from the 1972 Joe Cocker album with a Sly Stone feel to it. Clapton was joined by Andy Fairweather-Low, another regular member of his cast who’d played a spirited opening set with his own band, cheekily telling us that his own tally of RAH gigs now stood at 140. Like Clapton, there will be more to come.