St. Louis scored a biggie recently when Eric Clapton announced that Enterprise Center would be one of just five stops on his extremely limited 2023 North American tour. The arena filled up for Clapton’s show last night, and when the legend strolled on stage just before 9 p.m., the crowd roared to its feet, starstruck. They didn’t remain standing for long, however; after all, my 15-year-old daughter was easily the youngest person in the building. After scanning the crowd, I started to suspect that I was the second youngest.
I was surprised that more people south of, say, 50 didn’t prioritize seeing the Greatest Living Guitarist in person on what is highly likely to be last call on catching him, at least in St. Louis. It’s fairly easy to make a case for Clapton as capital-G greatest, if not the actual greatest, but his performance last night would have made almost anyone a believer in either.
Clapton, fit and spry at age 78 (I hope he’s had his boosters!), was brilliant on both electric and acoustic guitars all night, looking and sounding no different than he did 30 years ago. My daughter declared him cute. Not just “grandfather cute,” according to her, but “cute cute.” Wearing a denim shirt, jeans and Nike sneakers, all the classic Clapton moves were intact — the elegant position shifts up and down the neck, the stepping in place, the little oscillating sway, the gaze upward on the high notes.
Yes, Clapton is all about clean lines and not just the kind that used to go up his nose. But beautifully placed vocal lines, his voice gruffish but warm and with plenty of range, and perfect guitar runs and bends. He’s mastered the art of finding indelible melodies across the scales with extremely nimble and delicate picking, filled with gorgeous nuance and an enormous range of dynamics from his right hand. At one point, I actually cried.
Weep-worthy also was Clapton’s tribute to the recently passed Robbie Robertson, opening the concert with a pair of songs by the Band, “The Shape I’m In” and “It Makes No Difference,” songs that Clapton has often credited with changing his life. Video closeups revealed a blackened nail on the middle finger of Clapton’s chording hand, as though he had recently failed to get his finger away from a swinging hammer. They don’t call him Slowhand for nothing.
After the Band tributes, Clapton got bluesy with “Key to the Highway,” one of three songs from the Derek and the Dominos album to make the setlist, and Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” Clapton’s band was, of course, uniformly first-rate, and he threw solos on these tunes to electric pianist Chris Stainton, supplementary guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and organist Paul Carrack, whom you’ll remember as the lead singer on Mike + the Mechanics’ 1988 hit “The Living Years."
But all eyes were on Clapton, and while his solos were short stories, he knew when to stop; rarely did he take more than a trip or two through the progression, preferring instead to ace one round and get to the next song. The crowd only occasionally rose for the most familiar tunes, including an excellent “I Shot the Sheriff,” which featured one of the night's few extended jams. One fellow at stage right in the front row, who apparently saved his best hallucinogens for this event, was sometimes the only fan standing but was also gyrating and genuflecting manically, worshiping every quarter note coming from the stage as though Clapton really were God, that old notion.
Clapton himself took a seat for an acoustic interlude, recalling his gabillion-selling MTV Unplugged album, playing a little blues (“Driftin’ Blues), another Dominos nugget (“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”), a J.J. Cale classic (“Call Me the Breeze”), the Unplugged version of “Layla” and, naturally, “Tears in Heaven,” which was just lovely and which my daughter knew only because Phoebe Bridgers wrote a song about hating it.
When he strapped the Stratocaster back on, the band sounded all the louder for it on “Tearing Us Apart,” the Tina Turner duet from 1986’s August. Backup singer Katie Kissoon, a legend herself, took the Tina part, as Clapton turned to her and sort of smiled. No word of tribute about Tina’s passing from the stage or anything else last night. That little smile was about as effusive as Clapton got.
“Wonderful Tonight” was next, which he always plays (so take that, George Harrison), and, man, those bends were pretty, clearing the way for some scorching crowd-pleasers, “Cross Road Blues,” the Creamiest song of the night, and “Cocaine.” Opening act Jimmie Vaughan returned to the stage to trade licks on a Carrack-sung “High Time We Went,” but Vaughan was no match for Clapton. If there was one takeaway from the night, it was that, even now in 2023, nobody is.
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