The plot was spoiled well before Eric Clapton even took the stage of Dallas’ Reunion Arena for the maiden performance of his 2001 Reptile tour. Opening act Doyle Bramhall II and his band Smokestack may have kicked off Thursday night’s show with a thunderous roar reminiscent of Clapton in his Cream days, but the three chairs brought front and center before the main event was a tell-tale sign that there would be no more of that tomfoolery.
Not that Clapton didn1t receive an honest-to-god, three-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, guitar hero’s welcome when he walked out on stage, alone and dressed casually in white shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He responded with a somewhat embarrassed smile and casual wave and quickly and unceremoniously got down to the business of sitting down for a solo acoustic run through Big Bill Broozy’s “Key to the Highway.” It set the mood for the first quarter of the show, as Clapton would not switch to electric guitar until seven songs into the set. The intimate mood remained unchanged even when Clapton was joined by his five-piece band on the second song, the instrumental title track from his new album Reptile.
“It1s been awhile – it’s great to be back,” said Clapton as the applause died down after “Reptile.” “We’ve been here about a week – we came here early just to get some ribs.” It was the most he would talk all night, until the end of the show when he formally introduced the band: guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Gadd, keyboardist Dave Sancious (who also simulated sax solos through a mouth synthesizer) and none other than Billy Preston on organ.
Like the set itself, which lasted just over two hours and encompassed twenty-one songs, the band – Clapton included – was a model of professionalism. Preston, whose resume as a session player probably includes more classic rock hits than Clapton’s, was as essential to the mix as Clapton’s guitar solos, exchanging ovation-earning organ runs with Sanchez like two world-class players in a dueling piano bar. He also proved more than a match for “Layla”‘s epic piano coda, surely one of the most gorgeous stretches of music in the history of rock.
Clapton himself, of course, has contributed more than his fair of golden moments to that history, and he generously dished out snapshot-worthy replicas of many of them (with the standout by a mile being the gorgeous, acoustic “Bell Bottom Blues” that came early on in the set, sandwiched between “Tears in Heaven” and “Change the World.”) Knowing each would be met with a roar of quick approval from the capacity boomer crowd, he managed to keep most of his signature opening riffs under wraps until the last moment with admirable restraint – prefacing, say, “Cocaine” with a teasing intro that might just as well have opened up into “Sunshine of Your Love.” Sometimes, the revelation stung, like when the heavens seemed about to open up to reveal the glory of the Blind Faith gem “Presence of the Lord” and instead dropped the lackluster “River of Tears” from 1998’s Pilgrim.
Still, those “what’s-it-gonna-be” intros consistently proved some of the strongest moments of the show, if only because it was then and only then that Clapton seemed willing to play with the element of surprise. Once he got into the thick of a song and unleashed the soaring Strat solos upon which the church of Clapton was built, he delivered them all with trademark perfect tone and fluid grace but precious little sense of spontaneity. You never knew exactly which song he was going to do next, but once you did you could follow every turn and nuance with a roadmap. The band, for all their obvious technical skill, were equally at fault; apart from the welcome flourishes from Preston and Sancious, they seemed all too content to follow the leader, laying down their parts with the efficiency of studio pros with no interest in pushing Clapton into uncharted territory. It’s a conservative approach more consistent with Clapton’s Babyface-inspired, easy listening R&B musical direction of the last ten years than the epic, improvisational jams of Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes. Even compared to the more relaxed, organic shuffle Clapton hit upon with his touring band as a solo artist in the Seventies, this year’s model plays like a top-of-the-line Tonight Show band. A year 2001 Clapton performance is the concert equivalent of a Volvo: solid, sturdy lines, precision engineered and safer than Sherman tank.
All of which matters not a whit, of course, so long as Clapton is preaching to the converted, as he surely was on this night. The faithful came to worship, and seemed to leave every bit as satisfied having heard only old miracles retold exactly as they remembered them than they would have had a brand new testament been delivered to them firsthand. The closest Clapton came to any such wonderment tonight was the strikingly plaintive reading of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” he delivered before leaving the stage for the last time. For all his display of flawless fretwork, the simple, honest little crack in his voice on the closing line, “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” ended up being far and away the night’s most transcendent musical note.