- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Eric Clapton has never been much of a “frontman,” and it would have taken one to rattle a sedate boomer audience out of its workaday mood Monday night at the MCI Center.

After a hopping warm-up from pedal-steel guitar commando Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Mr. Clapton casually ambled into the lights. He was slicing through the opening chords of “Let It Rain” before reaching center stage.

He was wearing a black button-down shirt, jeans and comfy white Nike cross-trainers. Such is Mr. Clapton’s style — that is, no style. No contact lenses. No flash-and-bag nonsense.

Just the music, thank you.

If they weren’t already planted deep in their seats for Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and the little-known, Bob Dylan-penned “Walk Out in the Rain,” fans hunkered down for an extended, sit-down visit to the Robert Johnson songbook, which Mr. Clapton scoured on his latest album, “Me and Mr. Johnson.”

One wag referred to that section of Mr. Clapton’s nearly two-hour-long show as the “bathroom songs” — meaning it was OK to head for the halls while Slowhand took a detour from the hits.

What a pity.

With guitarist Doyle Bramhall II by his side on Dobro, Mr. Clapton dug into the slow, dolorous “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” and “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” with deliberate fervor.

Drummer Steve Gadd, bass player Nathan East and keyboardists Chris Stainton and Tim Carmon lined up behind a wall of bottleneck guitars for “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and turned “They’re Red Hot” into a rollin’-and-tumblin’ New Orleans romp.

The hits did arrive Monday, first with a long improv tease of Mr. Clapton’s famous cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and later, after those “bathroom songs,” with crowd favorites “Badge,” “Layla,” “Cocaine” and the ladies’ choice, “Wonderful Tonight.”

The audience unglued themselves for those and, in fairness, it should be said that Mr. Clapton received more than a few roars for some exquisitely fluid 12-bar soloing on blues workouts such as “I Want a Little Girl” and the Derek and the Dominoes-era hit “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.”

Mr. Randolph joined Mr. Clapton for a two-song encore of the Cream hit “Sunshine of Your Love” and another Muddy Waters nugget, “I Got My Mojo Working.”

His pedal-steel cranked to a Hendrixian volume, Mr. Randolph’s acrobatics had Mr. Clapton and Mr. Bramhall standing back in smiling awe.

At 59, Mr. Clapton knows young talent when he sees it. (The first time he heard Stevie Ray Vaughn, he said he was compelled to pull over his car.) He’s also humble and generous enough to let it shine under his headline.

Of course, Mr. Clapton’s not too shabby himself. Still pretty great, in fact — even if his fans walked away disappointed at not hearing “White Room” and “After Midnight.”

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