- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Smolder. Sizzle. Burn. Erupt.

The anatomy of an Eric Clapton guitar solo is not complex. Others have followed the same game plan — but few have executed it as well as the king of the Thames River Delta bluesmen.

Before a full house Tuesday at the Verizon Center, Mr. Clapton — backed by quite possibly his best band ever — showed that he still can wring infinite variety from that tried-and-true formula and that he still has the chops and the mojo to drive his blues further up the road.

One can argue whether those amazing lead guitar patterns on “Crossroads” (the encore) have slowed just a little or whether Mr. Clapton, 61, sings the tortured choruses of “Layla” with the same raw passion as the lovesick young fellow who wrote it in 1970 while besotted with the wife of his best friend (the late George Harrison), whom he later married.

If anything has slipped even a tad in the technical department, it’s minute. The overall impact of the music is undiminished, especially when he steers toward purer blues-based numbers.

Sporting short-cropped hair, baggy pants and a nondescript short-sleeve shirt, Mr. Clapton barely resembled the rock star most of us think of when we hear his name or music. He may look a bit like your favorite high school teacher these days, but there’s nothing academic about his sound.

His vocals were convincing on “Old Love” and Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades.” For most of his 44-album career, Mr. Clapton has been thought of primarily as one of the world’s foremost electric guitarists who also is a good singer. Now, however, his vocals stand on equal footing with his guitar playing, making him the complete bluesman he always wanted to be.

Tuesday evening’s concert didn’t look like much on paper. For many, a show virtually devoid of Cream (one song) and Derek and the Dominoes (two songs) material and short on traditional blues numbers from Mr. Clapton’s best “recent” albums — “Me and Mr. Johnson” (2004), “Riding With the King” (2000) and “From the Cradle” (1994) — looked like a potential disappointment.

It was anything but, in large part thanks to a band that played every number as a true ensemble. Mr. Clapton, as always, was more than generous in sharing the spotlight with musicians he obviously considers to be not just his supporting unit, but his equals and peers.

Heading into this show, it also was hard to see why he needed two other guitarists (Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II), not to mention two keyboard players (Chris Stainton and Tim Carmon). With super session men Steve Jordan on drums, Willie Weeks on bass and two backup vocalists also on board, it seemed things might be a bit crowded.

Such fears were unfounded. The three guitarists and two keyboardists worked beautifully together. Mr. Trucks — son of original Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks — lived up to all the hype he’s been getting as the latest “next big thing” blues guitarist. His slide-guitar workout on “Little Ace of Spades” deserved the standing ovation it received. And when he and Mr. Clapton played twin slide riffs on a supercharged “Motherless Children,” it was dazzling. Mr. Trucks did proud the legacy of Duane Allman, his father’s band mate, who died soon after collaborating on the “Layla” album.

Even as the number of onstage guitarists swelled to four when opening act Robert Cray joined the throng for “Old Love” (which he co-wrote with Mr. Clapton) and again on “Crossroads,” on which Mr. Cray also shared the vocal, the players appeared as coordinated as the Navy Blue Angels precision flying team.

Midway through the two-hour show, Mr. Clapton sat down and switched to his acoustic guitar for a four-song, semi-unplugged set, with “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out” as the standout. After that, Slowhand plugged in again for “After Midnight.” “Further on Up the Road,” another of his signature songs, was a bit more uptown, with a jazz swing to it, than the version he immortalized in the Band’s “The Last Waltz” movie.

The regular set finished with “Wonderful Tonight,” one of Mr. Clapton’s most popular love ballads, followed by “Layla” (complete with the long piano and slide-guitar coda) and J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine.”

Every few years, as regular as clockwork, the musical press embraces some new guitarist and singer as the next savior of the blues — the guy who’s going to keep the music and spirit of Muddy Waters flowing and the sound of John Lee Hooker on the burner. Most of these players are mere Johnny-come-latelys compared to Mr. Clapton. He didn’t just pick up and pass the torch, he rekindled it.

Tuesday’s concert showed that he continues to fan the flame.

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