Eschewing many of his most famous hits, British rock guitar legend Eric Clapton instead leaned heavily on the blues catalog from his past Sunday evening in front of a soldout crowd at US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix.
And the adoring crowd didn’t seem to miss such non-performed hits as “Tears in Heaven,” “Lay Down Sally” or his ‘70s hit cover of reggae icon Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”
“I was hoping for ‘White Room,’” said Randy Hilleboe, a guitar player from Gilbert, of the hit song by Clapton’s former band Cream. “I love his Cream era, but anything he plays is great.”
Backed by a six-piece band that included young guitar aces Doyle Bramhall II (Arc Angels, solo artist) and Derek Trucks (Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks Band), Clapton broke out several cuts from his 1970 Derek and the Dominos record “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” an album featuring the slide guitar work of the late great Duane Allman, which was duplicated effortlessly Sunday night by Trucks, prompting one fan to scream out “Duane Allman Jr.!” after a particularly mind-blowing slide solo on “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?”
As impressive as Bramhall, who played a scorching solo on the Robert Johnson cover “Little Queen of Spades,” and Trucks were, Clapton is still Clapton, a player who, other than Jimi Hendrix, is probably the greatest rock guitarist of all time, and is now, perhaps pushed by the youngsters, playing his best guitar in decades.
Dressed casually in blue jeans and a plain button-down shirt, the bespectacled Clapton looked like a college professor, his lecture being some of the greatest blues and rock licks in the history of the genre, and the crowd -- undoubtedly filled with amateur guitarists hoping to cop a few licks from the master -- oohed and aahed every time Clapton launched into his stinging leads.
After an opening electric set that featured five Derek and the Dominos tunes, Clapton played a solo acoustic version of “Drifting Blues” before being joined on dobro by Trucks and acoustic by Bramhall for Cream’s “Outside Woman Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” from “Layla” and the newest tune Clapton played all night, “Running on Faith” from 1989’s “Journeyman.”
Clapton saved the two best-known tunes of the evening for the end of his set, singing the gorgeous “Wonderful Tonight” before kicking into the original version of “Layla” -- bypassing the slower acoustic version that became a hit in the ‘90s -- which feature Clapton and Trucks playing dueling slide guitars during the song’s coda.
Clapton’s encore consisted of a lengthy version of his 1977 hit “Cocaine,” during which all three guitarists took extended solos, before ending the night with opener Robert Cray joining the band for a chugging version of the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads" -- which Clapton and Cream made famous on the 1968 album “Wheels of Fire" -- after which Clapton and company left the stage to a standing ovation.
Cray was impressive during an opening 35-minute set that was way too short for many fans, who tried to prompt the five-time Grammy Award-winning blues artist into an encore, to no avail.
“I’d never seen him before,” Mark Hester of Phoenix said of Cray after the guitarist/singer’s set. “Even though I didn’t know his songs, I liked the melody in his singing and playing. He’s no Eric Clapton, though.
“But, then again, nobody else is.”
Eric Clapton set list
Tell The Truth
Key to the Highway
Got to Get Better in A Little While
Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?
Outside Woman Blues
Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
Running On Faith
Little Queen of Spades
Further On Up The Road