“Thank you!” Over and over Monday night in Chicago, those were about the only words spoken by legendary English guitarist Eric Clapton between songs on stage at United Center on night three of his North American tour (his first stop in Chicago in 10 years).
Clapton has proved to be a controversial figure of late but opted to let his guitar do the talking Monday night, sticking to the hits while avoiding recently recorded material with Northern Irish singer songwriter Van Morrison or his latest single “Pompous Fool.”
In late 2020, in what would’ve once been dubbed a dream collaboration, the duo worked together on tracks like “Stand and Deliver,” one which compared the lock down of quarantine to slavery (a song complete with a lyrical reference to “chains” to really hammer home the ill-advised point).
A rant made by Clapton on stage in 1976 resurfaced, one in which – alongside a variety of racial slurs – the guitarist is alleged to have made statements like, “Keep Britain white,” presenting longtime fans of music’s only three time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with the question of how to separate the artist from the art (or whether it’s even worth trying).
Nevertheless, Clapton ran through the blues songbook Monday night on stage in Chicago, putting his spin on material from Black American artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Elmore James.
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Backed by a seven piece group, including longtime secret weapon Doyle Bramhall II on guitar and vocalist/keyboardist Paul Carrack (Ace, Squeeze, Mike + The Mechanics), Clapton picked his way slowly but methodically through about an hour and 40 minutes on stage in Chicago.
Performing to a sparse crowd on night one of two – the stadium’s upper reaches were curtained off entirely and some fans were relocated as close as the sixth row – Clapton and company got rolling with their take on “God Save the Queen,” observing the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II while dropping previous opener “Pretending” from the set.
“Thank you!” said Clapton to the Chicago crowd, the group’s take on Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” an early highlight. Bramhall was a revelation on slide guitar during an early solo, Clapton rising to the occasion, firing right back.
In the live setting, “Slow Hand” always steadies the pace and Monday night was a slow burn heading into The Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff.” Clapton’s backing vocalists shined on the song, bass oddly low in the mix on the reggae classic as Clapton stretched out for a solo.
Clapton and company kicked off an acoustic set with their take on Waters’ “Country Boy.” Bramhall moved to harmonica and upright bass set the pace on the stripped down performance.
Clapton opted for an acoustic spin on some of his biggest hits Monday, putting forth J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” alongside “Layla” and a version of “Tears In Heaven” which riffed on Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” “After Midnight” in particular was an altered affair, keys up front as Bramhall fired away on electric guitar while Clapton strummed.
Busting out of the acoustic set, the group offered up the only Cream song of the evening, “Badge” serving as a standout despite a late fumble.
“Thank you very much!” said Clapton, putting forth some of his finest fretwork of the night during a slowed down, deliberate run through Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” Carrack shining on James’ “The Sky is Crying” as the group headed toward encore with Cale’s “Cocaine.”
“How’s everybody feeling tonight?” asked Texas bluesman Jimmie Vaughan, the evening’s opening act.
Vaughan’s band was terrific, a seven piece group featuring a three piece horn section and Hammond B3 organ.
Vaughan drew from throughout his career, hitting upon work alongside Stevie Ray as The Vaughan Brothers in addition to The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“Let’s go, baby!” screamed Vaughan, horns fueling Luther Johnson’s “Roll Roll Roll,” as Vaughan handled lead vocal on the boogie soul number.
Organist Mike Flanigin took the Chicago crowd to church, horns soaring above during a slowed down, thoughtful take on Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Dirty Work at the Crossroads.”
“We’re gonna do a little thang that was written by Slide Hampton,” said Vaughan, setting up “Frame For the Blues.” “This goes out to the ladies,” said the guitarist with a laugh, delivering a lilting bent lead as organ kicked in on the instrumental jam.
“This is the crawl!” declared Vaughan. “Y’all remember the crawl? Just yell ‘Crawl!’ when it gets to that time,” he explained. “It’s called the crawl and it goes like this!” Vaughan said, closing a rollickingly rewarding 40 minute set, playing his guitar behind his head on The Fabulous Thunderbirds cut.