Clapton sticks to old blues, and casts his familiar spell


Ever since the mid-'60s, when he was a member of John Mayall's band, Eric Clapton's vocal growl and stinging guitar work have sounded perfectly natural -- as if the blues were in his blood.

As a member of the late-'60s supergroup Cream, Clapton rewrote rock-and-roll history with blues-based hard rock.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, both as a member of Derek and the Dominos and as a solo artist, he used the blues as a reference point. But at the USAir Arena Wednesday night, Eric Clapton brought his past into the present. Touring in support of his current blues-only album, "From the Cradle," Clapton not only paid homage to his roots, he placed them on their rightful pedestal.

Opening the two-hour set with a couple of tasty acoustic numbers, Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues" being the most notable, it took the eight-member backing band a few moments to get on track. But when all of the cylinders fired, with Clapton's slicing guitar work providing the fuel, the band rambled with all the subtlety of a runaway freight train.

Clapton delved deep into the blues archives for Howlin' Wolf's "The Forty-Four," bending his guitar strings, jettisoning rapid-fire note clusters, and firing off a crystal-clear slide that sent shivers from the toes to the nose. On "Hootchie Cootchie Man," the guitarist seemed possessed, the words pouring out of his body as if exorcised by the song's punchy, start-stop rhythm.

The spirit of the great blues artists of the past seemed to hover, like guardian angels sent to uphold the sanctity of their handiwork. And as they saw their protege knock off versions of Jimmy Rogers' "The Blues All Day Long," Muddy Waters' "Standin' Around Cryin'" and Ray Charles' "The Sinner's Prayer," they must have been content that their legacy was in good hands.

In spite of the show's "Nothing But the Blues" billing, there were periodic yelling requests for such Clapton standards as "Cocaine" and "White Room." Still, the guitarist wasn't returning to his roots on the crowd's behalf; Clapton was playing for Clapton.

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