Clapton, still divine at the Borgata
There is a munificent God. Or at least, there is a British gentleman rocker once deified by graffiti scrawled on a London Underground station who played a generous-spirited show at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa on Sunday that reconfirmed his exalted status in the blues-guitar pantheon while spreading the glory around among a superb cast of supporting musicians.
There is a munificent God.
Or at least, there is a British gentleman rocker once deified by graffiti scrawled on a London Underground station who played a generous-spirited show at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa on Sunday that reconfirmed his exalted status in the blues-guitar pantheon while spreading the glory around among a superb cast of supporting musicians.
"Clapton is God," the immortal inscription read, way back in 1965 when Eric Clapton was a member of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Then as now, the monotheistic moniker hung uneasily on Clapton, a singularly brilliant instrumentalist who has always been most comfortable playing with others, from his beginnings in the Yardbirds, power trio triumphs with Cream, and explosive encounters with Duane Allman in Derek & the Dominos.
At the Borgata, in Clapton's first-ever solo show in Atlantic City and first appearance there since guesting at a Rolling Stones date in 1989, the 63-year-old guitarist employed Texas six-string ace Doyle Bramhall II as his faithful second.
Besides granting plenty of solos - including the elegiac Allman one on "Layla" to Bramhall, an unconventional, left-handed player who strings his ax upside down - Clapton shone light on his longtime keyboard player Chris Stainton, whose standout segment was a clustered interlude on Robert Johnson's "Little Queen of Spades."
And for a freewheeling encore of Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Working," Clapton traded ideas with Morristown, N.J., sacred steel guitar whiz Robert Randolph, who opened with a rousing gospel-funk-rock set with his Family Band.
But for all the camaraderie onstage, there was a clear star system at work, although maybe not enough of one for classic-rock fans hoping to hear a parade of hits: Along with "Layla," there was only "Wonderful Tonight" (like "Layla," written for his ex-wife, Pattie Boyd) and the set-closing riff monster "Cocaine."
Instead, Clapton, looking trim in jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, his hair streaked with gray, stuck close to the blues. He opened by letting luscious licks loose on the spiritual "Motherless Children." And from that point, he gave hard-core blues hounds (in a crowd in which under-30s not with Mom and Dad were scarce) a surfeit of guitar porn, with plenty of fretboard close-ups on the big screens that flanked the stage.
Along with Jimi Hendrix, whose "Little Wing" he covered in a barrage that included Freddie King's "Key to the Highway" and Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man," Clapton is arguably the most revered player on rock's signature instrument. And there was mastery on display - in a solo acoustic version of Charles Brown's "Driftin' Blues," followed by a touch of the old soft shoe with Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair," for instance.
But Clapton has never been a showboat, and everything about the evening was economical, with an absence of excess. In his autobiography, Clapton (just out in paperback), the guitarist remembers being rewarded as an English schoolboy in the '50s for "neatness and tidiness," and that attention to detail, and sense of what not to play, still marks his every move.
Clapton is a warm, gruff, not-great singer. And as a songwriter, he's been wildly inconsistent over the decades. But when he comes back to the blues, he stands on solid ground. He humbles himself before his heroes, whether they be long-gone ones like Johnson, whose "Travelin' Riverside Blues" was delivered with blistering intensity, or such less-celebrated giants as Otis Rush, with whom he once collaborated.
The highlight of Sunday's show was Rush's minor-key masterpiece "Double Trouble," with Clapton and Bramhall exchanging licks both fiery and fragile. It was a deeply affecting expression of hurt so convincing in its empathy that it rendered mute the irony that its key lyric - "Some of this generation are millionaires / It's hard for me to find decent clothes to wear" - was being sung by Eric Clapton.