Friday, February 19, 2010
Collaboration has been the dominant theme of the last decade of Eric Clapton’s career. He has recorded albums with B.B. King and J.J. Cale, and presented reunion concerts with his ‘60s power trio Cream and his old Blind Faith bandmate Steve Winwood.
His latest partner, Jeff Beck, is perhaps the most surprising of all. Beck, 65, replaced Clapton, 64, as the Yardbirds’ lead guitarist in 1966, and the two have crossed paths occasionally since then. But their first major undertaking together is the series of joint concerts they are now presenting.
They played together in Japan last year and in London last week, and kicked off a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Only two more joint shows, in Toronto and Montreal, are currently planned, though both men plan to spend much of this year on the road (Beck has three New Jersey concerts scheduled for June).
Thursday’s show was split into three parts: Beck and Clapton sets, then a set together (with Clapton’s backing band). Lacking a common recording history but sharing a deep affection for classic blues songs, they spent most of their time together trading sharp, compact riffs on material like “Shake Your Moneymaker,” “You Need Love” (the predecessor for Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”), “Outside Woman Blues,” “Little Brown Bird” and “Wee Wee Baby.”
Their fiercest duel came on the encore, the Cream-popularized blues classic “Crossroads.” Deviations from the bluesy norm included a celebratory take on Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher” and a cover of “Moon River” — yes, “Moon River” — sensitively crooned by Clapton but chosen, clearly, to spotlight the lyrical side of Beck’s guitar playing.
In his own set, the casually dressed Clapton started with relaxed, acoustic versions of “Driftin’ Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Running On Faith” and “I’ve Got A Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart” before getting to electric crowd-pleasers like “Cocaine” and “I Shot the Sheriff.”
Beck — who still looks every inch the rock star, with his jet-black hair and sleeveless shirt — put his own stamp on material as diverse as the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” and the Puccini aria “Nessun dorma,” with his guitar carrying the melodies (he doesn’t sing). His virtuosic three-piece band helped him steered many songs toward jazz-fusion territory; an orchestra with more than 20 pieces added rich textures to some numbers.
These two guys have been leading contenders for the title of World’s Greatest Guitarist since the ‘60s, and there is no way a single show could resolve the question of who deserves it more. Beck was a little flashier, but never stooped to pointless showing off. Clapton never looked like he was trying hard, but still played with stunning dexterity. Call this one a draw.
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