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21 May 2024

Eric Clapton’s late years

Who knows what’s going on in that head, but his connection to his instrument has never lost its power.

By Kate Mossman

It’s strange to think that in 20 years’ time, guitarists might not headline the Royal Albert Hall; that in Eric Clapton we are not only celebrating the axe’s most famous handler, but the instrument itself, a bit like having a harpsichord night with Bach on the keys. Clapton was the founding guitar god: the first to turn his amp up to the max, to use distortion to accentuate the bendy notes of the British Blues Explosion and to pioneer the “lead accompaniment” over the solo, with all manner of little flourishes; he also created “woman tones”, as he called them – playing loud but soft, rather than scriddly-scree. Though others have emulated his diagnostic phrasings and done them better, close your eyes in the room tonight and it still couldn’t be anyone else. He never had the technical brilliance of Jimi Hendrix, or the dazzling scope of Jeff Beck, and his best guitar work was done by his early twenties. This hangs over him – that he did not develop creatively on the instrument. After his big pop hits, he went back to the blues in a purist sense, and some say he has been dull for 40 years.

He looks debonair tonight; a dark linen suit falling here and there in right angles around a sharp hip or knee; a long chain round his neck with a gold sphere that looks a bit like the “Tannis root” from Rosemary’s Baby. Clapton is the latest musician to have come back from the dead: he was in a wheelchair seven years ago, having been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disease which affects the limbs, especially the fingers – a disaster for a guitarist. He was a campaigning anti-vaxxer, complaining about the side effects of AstraZeneca, and he bombed around red states in the US, doing gigs at a time of surging death rates. At 78, he is still haunted by a racist rant from 1976 that he blamed on heroin. Tonight there’s no politics apart from footage of a blasted Gaza on the large screens, and one of his guitars painted with the Palestinian flag. Who knows what is going on in that head, yet when the Clapton look comes over him – chin drawn back, eyes clenched tight, face to the sky – you can see that his connection with the instrument has never lost its power. 

It’s a short, 1.5 hour set (he performs two Robert Johnsons, some Bo Diddley, etc) featuring several thrilling and very loud blues-rock interludes, such as JJ Cole’s “Cocaine”, and an acoustic sequence in the middle, presumably to save his energy. From the front few rows, men who have followed Clapton through life shout supportive comments and he seems to feel obliged, rather awkwardly, to hear each one in turn. He plays a beautifully straight version of “Tears in Heaven”, written after the death of his four year-old son in 1991, and I wonder what it’s been like to do that track, gig after gig, for so many years; whether he connects to it more on some nights than others, and why. The other song that hits me in the chest, possibly because it has the same, creamy, later-Clapton chord changes, is “Back Home” (“I’m moving in the wrong direction”) from 2005. His voice fills the hall, smokier and more powerful than it sounded in middle age.

[See also: Olivia Rodrigo’s guts-spilling, rabble-rousing tour]

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