Eric Clapton/The Wallflowers: New Orleans Arena, New Orleans, LA, 03/23/13

Looking around the New Orleans Arena, the first thing you notice is that the nosebleed section is packed; all the way around, all the way down to the floor, people have been filtering in quickly, not wanting to miss one note the guitar legend plays. He carries that kind of respect, from the everyday Joe to probably the Queen herself, although watching him on stage he has not the jumping jack charisma nor eyes blinded shut lightshow that typically grabs your attention. What Eric Clapton possesses is an illuminating presence. You are so transfixed on his hands that blinking is not an option. His fingers are the reason the cameras keep them displayed on the big screens on each side of the stage, hardly wavering from these magical extremities almost to the point of golden calf worship. Clapton may not consider himself a God but he certainly is a wizard, humbly casting spells everywhere he plays.

I’ve been told that the last time Clapton played New Orleans he was not exactly at his best. That last taste may have been enough to keep some folks from forking out the dough to see a rerun of a lackluster concert. But that was not the case. Fans swept up the tickets, bought t-shirts and posters, and prepared for the best. And what Clapton 2013 provided for them in return was a performance that proved he is still the maestro of electric guitar.

Surrounding himself by a large, absolutely fantastic, band, Clapton fell into his comfort zone, playing on tip-toes as the chords took over and settling back into a rhythm mode when Doyle Bramhall II or Paul Carrack took the reins. Clapton is a quiet leader, able to shine one moment, able to hide in the shadows, sans ego, sans flamboyance, another. In jeans and long-sleeved button-up shirt, he could very well just be heading out to the local Home Depot to pick up some gardening supplies.

It was really good to see The Wallflowers opening for Clapton. The wait has been too long but worth it, as Jacob Dylan headed up a gem of a band as they sparked through their catalog of hits, including “6th Avenue Heartache,” “One Headlight,” “Three Marlenas,” and a very enjoyable “The Difference.” From their 2012 release, Glad All Over, they played three tunes – opening with “The Devil’s Waltz” followed immediately by “Misfits & Lovers” with “Love Is A Country” a little further into the set.

Like Clapton, Dylan is an unassuming bandleader, content to stay behind his microphone and play his guitar without any eccentrical theatrics. Rami Jaffee was the rock star in this band, playing keys and jiving to the music they were creating. The Wallflowers should definitely consider hanging around a bit before going into hibernation again. Their sound is too fresh and too enjoyable to be put on a back-burner.

Speaking of fresh, Doyle Bramhall II has proven himself a major-league guitar player, growing leaps and bounds into his own and turning up the sauna when a song needs some fire. “Crossroads” and “Little Queen Of Spades” come positively alive when he conjures up some fiery voodoo chords. The latter tune especially shows how Bramhall can feed off some sultry Clapton blues and go down in a deep rumble before spiraling out in a cayenne pepper sweat on a humid southern night, melting his strings. Not many players can hold toe with one of the best but Bramhall does it effortlessly.

Although the atmosphere was popping when Clapton went electric on “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Cocaine,” “Crossroads” and “Sunshine Of Your Love,” it was when he pulled back and found his blues that was the highlight of a highlight-heavy show: Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen Of Spades” – also featuring a boogie woogie tree-trimmer of a keys solo by the one of a kind Chris Stainton; and his acoustic segment while sitting in a chair picking his guitar to “Driftin’ Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out,” “Tears In Heaven,” “Goodnight Irene” and the lovely “Wonderful Tonight,” which Clapton only had to play guitar on since the crowd sang every word.

It should also be mentioned that Steve Jordan tore up his drums on such songs as “Black Cat Bone,” “Crossroads” and the Cream classic “Sunshine Of Your Love” during the encore. Greg Leisz on pedal steel hit heartstrings on “Wonderful Tonight” and “Tears In Heaven.” Bass player Willie Weeks was the solid foundation on which everyone rode on, especially on “Got To Get Better In A Little While.” And Paul Carrack, the voice of The Squeeze and Ace, was let loose to sing “Tempted,” “How Long” and the encore-ending jam “High Time We Went.”

Opening with “Hello Old Friend” was wistfully appropriate as Clapton said recently he will probably stop touring by the time he is 70. He turned 68 on March 30th. Clapton never was one to shake a tail feather like his compatriot Mick Jagger, more comfortable just being the shy boy from Surrey, England, playing blues because it was what his soul called him to do. With a life more public than he undoubtedly cared for, Clapton’s legend is sealed and taking some time to enjoy a quiet life might not be such a bad thing for him; albeit a very sad thing for us. And even though he didn’t grace us with “Layla” or “After Midnight” or even something from his old John Mayall days – “Double Crossing Time” would have been chillingly extraordinary back-to-back with “Little Queen Of Spades” – Clapton did not leave a soul unhappy as they filed out of the building, blasting his music from their car stereos as they pulled off into the night.

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