Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood - 17 June 2009 - Chicago, IL United Center
01. Had to Cry Today
02. Low Down
03. After Midnight
04. Presence of the Lord
05. Sleeping in the Ground
07. Well, Alright
08. It's Too Bad
09. Pearly Queen
11. There's A River
12. Forever Man
13. Georgia On My Mind
15. How Long
17. Can't Find My Way Home
18. Split Decision
19. Voodoo Chile
20. Sweet Home Chicago
21. Drowning On Dry Land
Chris Stainton (Keyboards)
Willie Weeks (Bass)
Abe Laboriel Jr. (Drums)
Michelle John & Sharon White (Backing vocals)
Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood shuffled on-stage Wednesday at the United Center like a couple of golf buddies in loose-fitting jeans and untucked shirts. No introduction, a couple of waves, a brief smile, and then they got down to business.
When the concert ended more than two hours later after a satisfyingly intense exploration of most facets of their careers, together and apart, they ceded the stage to a man who inspired them both: Buddy Guy. Without introduction, the shaven-headed Guy radiated testosterone and charisma, and Clapton and Winwood traded a knowing smile as the master in their midst tore into his solos with a violence that was jarring.
The performance capped a night in which Clapton and Winwood renewed their vows to a style of music-making that is no longer particularly in fashion, a style of in-the-moment interplay that has been replaced by more choreographed brands of entertainment. But on this night, it was a love that burned, to paraphrase an old Peter Green classic cut in the mold of Chicago blues.
A few years ago, Clapton was coasting as a live performer. The nadir was his defanged version of “Layla,” a song once so intense it approximated a sob. Now it had been reduced to a cabaret parody. Clapton was touring with a big band of competent pros but nobody who could really push him, and he turned in rote versions of his hits.
But then at his 2007 Crossroads Festival at Toyota Park in southwest suburban Bridgeview, he looked and sounded renewed, in no small part due to the brief but intense cameo turned in by Winwood.
That energy translated to the stage Wednesday, with Clapton and Winwood fronting a relatively small, no-fuss, five-piece band abetted by two backing singers. The musicians were in excellent form, particularly drummer Abe Laboriel, who kept the rhythm oil flowing and stretched out with orchestral flair as the longer pieces ebbed and surged.
The headlining duo opened by looking back 40 years to “Had to Cry Today,” the first song on the first and only Blind Faith album, released in 1969. That was to be the only album-length studio collaboration between Clapton and Winwood in their long, much-acclaimed careers. Upon returning to it, they clung to every note with tenacity. Clapton took the first solo, then went toe-to-toe with Winwood on the second, and things were off to flying start.
Winwood had his piano-pounding romp on “Glad,” with Clapton’s guitar mimicking the original saxophone fills by Traffic’s Chris Wood, and got his Ray Charles fix (via Hoagy Carmichael) with a solo “Georgia on My Mind.” Clapton indulged his obsession with the J.J. Cale shuffle (“Low Down,” “After Midnight” --- though, thankfully, no “Cocaine”), ‘80s blues-pop (“Forever Man”), and the obligatory lounge version of “Layla.”
They were at their best putting their stock in Blind Faith: a yearning “Presence of the Lord,” split open by Clapton’s wah-wah-pedal guitar solo; a celebratory version of Buddy Holly’s “Well Alright”; and an acoustic “Can’t Find My Way Home” with Winwood’s still pliant voice turning it into a hymn.
Above all, there was the common vocabulary of the blues, from an acoustic version of Charles Brown’s “Driftin’ Blues” to Jimi Hendrix’s intergalactic “Voodoo Chile.” The songs became vehicles for extended interplay, Winwood primarily on Hammond organ while Clapton leaned into his solos with purpose. There was no preening, just graying, grizzled grown-ups re-devoting themselves to their life’s work. It was inspiring to see, a throwback to an era when young manhood in Britain was defined by how well a singer or guitarist could emulate the scarifying spirit of Chicago blues.
And then, Buddy Guy showed up. Not to be outdone, he tore through “Drowning on Dry Land” with a mixture of eerie poise and lion-like ferocity. School, even for sixtysomething British rock legends, was still in session.