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Eric Clapton: Bigger Bands Can Work

So after my recent letdown at a Dave Mathews Band concert where ten musicians on stage all bled together into a sonic stew, I was curious about Eric Clapton, since I had tickets for the April 3 Clapton concert in Raleigh, and I knew he would have a fairly large band on stage.

Clapton pulled it off right! First of all, despite Eric himself looking like a tenured English Lit professor, the man can still rock. He has lost nothing. I vaguely remember him from a front-row seat at a performance in Knoxville, Tennessee back in the early seventies. In the nearly forty years since I first saw him play on stage, he has become more well-rounded. His acoustic set was beautiful, especially Wonderful Tonight, but also Layla and Tears in Heaven. His tonal expressiveness on his signature Martin 000-28 acoustic guitar was impressive, and his vocals (the acid test of time for a musician) were still right on.

But when he got to the electric part of the performance, his nine-piece all-star band really pulled it together. Eric’s guitar virtuosity has just gotten better and better. His command of the fretboard both slow and fast was impressive. He even played slide on one tune (first time I’ve seen him do that). He is truly deserving of the accolades and the positioning at or near the top of nearly everyone’s top ten guitarists of all time list.

Doyle Bramhall II played aside Eric, and Doyle is no slouch either. Doyle is well-known among blues and blues-rock aficionados. His dad played with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Doyle has played with Roger Waters’ band, and now has been touring with Clapton for while. He didn’t just stick to laying down a rhythmic backdrop for the master to play against. Doyle himself stepped out and proved he is a great guitarist as well. He too commanded wondrous tones and scintillating riffs. I was amazed when I noticed him playing his left-handed Stratocaster with it strung upside down (fatter/lower strings on the bottom) as he bent high notes down. I’d only seen him play before on the 2010 Crossroads DVD. He lived up to expectations.

Then there’s Willie Weeks on bass. I had remembered Willie’s impressive bass on a performance of Rocky Mountain Way from the Joe Walsh Live album. At the Clapton concert, Willie was animated and energetic and put himself on my personal top ten bassists list.

Chris Stainton on has had quite a lengthy career on keyboards, having had prior collaborations with Clapton, as well as Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Roger Waters, Joe Cocker…(he played piano on the Who album Quadraphenia). He got a huge ovation for one of his solos with Clapton.

Then there’s Paul Carrack on organ. Carrack also has had a storied career with the likes of Roger Waters, The Eagles, Elton John, and B.B. King. Paul sang beautiful lead vocals on Tempted, How Long and one of the encore numbers High Time We Went.

Steve Jordan was a maniac on drums. His mix of energy and temporal precision kept the performance moving and grooving (sorry – I had to say that once). Jordan’s cv includes working with Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, and being the drummer for the Saturday Night Live Band back in the seventies.

And as if two guitarists wasn’t enough, there was Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar as well as a lap slide guitar. Leisz has played with the Eagles, Jon Fogerty, Allison Krauss, Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris, et. al.

Rounding out the band were the duo of female backing vocalists: Michelle John and Sharon White.

Overall, this was a band of accomplished and experienced musicians. So how did they sound playing together? Freaking fantastic. Compared to other megabands I’ve seen in the past, I could hear every single instrument at all times. The PNC Arena is a huge indoor arena, but well-known for having pretty decent acoustics.

Clapton FOH Pit

The audio engineers and the mixer at the Front-Of-House console were all undoubtedly at the top of their game. But I’m also crediting Clapton himself for being able to come up with a musical arrangement that kept all the sounds from bleeding into a morass of indistinguishable tone, and yet allowing each musician to shine at the right time.

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