Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 2/28/08

In the most practical sense, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood’s three-night run at Madison Square Garden is quite unlike the recent Led Zeppelin one show reunion or the comeback tour of The Police. These two esteemed musicians have some unfinished business: Blind Faith, the band they created and then lost control of stands as the most significant case of arrested development in the history or rock and roll.

One has to wonder what the respective career paths of Clapton and Winwood might have taken had Blind Faith been a long-term success rather than a one-album one-tour flame-out ignited by personal friction and management miscalculation. Granted both have had their moments of compromise over the years, but only limited recognition of such lapses occurred during the two and half hours they played in New York Thursday night. What’s more important, and altogether evident from watching the two men on-stage together, is that their individual talents are perfectly complementary.

The dual guitar powerhouse opener of “Had to Cry Today” was appropriate in more ways than one. By the first guitar break, Winwood and Clapton had acknowledged their history, depicted how closely in tune they are with each other as improvisationalists and suggested how willing they are to defer to each other as band-mates. Ensuing numbers expanded upon that obvious simpatico including the exchange of more than a few smiles of pure satisfaction.

Eric Clapton has rarely shared the stage with peers during the course of his career, but he obviously takes great solace, not to mention inspiration, from Steve Winwood’s presence across the stage. This Thursday night, “Slowhand” gave every indication of feeling a tangible sense of freedom from carrying the whole load: as a result, he radiated as much abandon as authority in both his singing and his guitar playing, whether on the torrid 12-bar of “Double Trouble” or the formulaic pop of “Forever Man.”

Throughout the night Steve Winwood reaffirmed his stature as one of the most distinctive, soulful singers in all of rock and an equally emotive guitarist and keyboardist. He is, nevertheless, sufficiently comfortable and confident of his own multiple talents to play the correct role on any given tune, as when his Hammond organ pumped up “After Midnight” and his rollicking piano set a tone for the sly slow blues “Sleeping in the Ground.” There’s a boyish enthusiasm about Steve, despite the gray growing at his temples (for his part Clapton is becoming absolutely grandfatherly as his glasses wend their way down his nose), so much so the naiveté in his muted rendition of “No Face, No Name No Number” was absolutely compelling.

The sound of the compact quintet—including former Joe Cocker Grease Band veteran Christ Stainton on keyboards, Willie Weeks on bass and Ian Thomas on drums—sounded tight and self-assured. Meanwhile, the versatility of the dual front-men reflected the eclectic elements of an extremely well paced choice of songs. Steve and Eric wailed their way through the vocals on Derek & The Dominos’ “Tell The Truth.” Only slightly less stirring was their take on Hendrix’ “Little Wing,” but the extended exploration of "Voodoo Chile” was absolutely chilling. Clapton’s guitar ride-out on Traffic’s “Pearly Queen” further illustrated how he and Winwood are such a perfect mesh and if that wasn’t sufficiently convincing, the tradeoffs on “Presence of the Lord,” were both stately and suspenseful.

Inclusion of a clutch of Traffic songs, including “Glad”(coupled to Blind Faith’s “Well Alright”), plus an encore of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” (following so closely on the heels of “Can’t Find My Way Home”) suggests these shows may do as much or more to elevate Steve Winwood’s visibility as they will to placate those music lovers who’ve seen and heard Eric Clapton submerse the passionate simplicity of his guitar work in commercial pap over the years.

The inherent drama of seeing these two men play together could only supersede the nondescript theatrical lighting effects. The Steve Winwood/Eric Clapton MSG run stands as one of those most rare moments in rock where two famously gifted performers transcend their celebrity to celebrate the power of their chemistry.

Set List
Had To Cry Today
Low Down
Forever Man
Them Changes
Sleeping In The Ground
Presence Of The Lord
Glad / Well Alright
Double Trouble
Pearly Queen
Tell The Truth
No Face
After Midnight
Split Decision
Kind Hearted Woman Blues
Georgia On My Mind
Little Wing
Voodoo Chile
Can’t Find My Way Home

Dear Mr Fantasy

Live photo by Associated Press

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