Yes, you were wonderful tonight.
— Eric Clapton
And so it was, on a cold and blustery night not well-suited for man nor beast, that some 12,000 of the South’s faithful were shown a modern-day musical truth: There are indeed still gods who walk among us.
And what a glorious revelation it was.
On the day he celebrated his 68th birthday, guitar deity Eric Clapton proved himself still no mortal man with a two-hour-plus set that left fans in the jam-packed Arena at Gwinnett awed anew at the talents of a virtuoso touring to celebrate 50 years in a business that chews up and spits out many of its best in five or less.
And while Clapton may be winding down a career that leaves him with only a handful of peers — he told Rolling Stone magazine he plans to stop touring when he turns 70 — he proved to a raptly attentive crowd that there’s still plenty of magic left in those slow hands.
From the opening cords of the “No Reason to Cry”-era classic “Hello Old Friend,” Clapton and his six-man touring band — fellow guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, who, it turns out, has the chops to match licks with a god, organist Paul Carrack (yes, that Paul Carrack), drummer Steve Jordan, pedal steel/mandolinist Greg Leisz, pianist Chris Stainton, bassist Willie Weeks — as well as backup singers Michelle John and Sharon White, took the crowd through a this-is-your-life-like retrospective of an unparalleled career.
There were plenty of the blues-legends covers that are synonymous with Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Stones and the Yardbirds — blues that the British artists of the late ’60s and early ’70s electrified and turned into a heavier brand of rock and roll — from Albert Collins’ “Black Cat Bone” to the four-song Robert Johnson suite “Stones in My Passway,” “Love in Vain,” the amazing “Little Queen of Spades” — which allowed Bramhall, Stainton and Carrack to showcase their individual talents — and a magical “Crossroads.”
There was a sizeable enough portion of Cream — “Badge,” on which Clapton made the original George Harrison guitar solo both poignant and remarkable, and the encore rattle and shake of “Sunshine of Your Love” — to satisfy classic rockers’ palates, and there were the familiar Clapton hits (“Cocaine,” “My Father’s Eyes”).
There was a taste of Clapton’s recently released “Old Sock,” his 23rd studio album (“Gotta Get Over”), and even numbers that put the talented Carrack front and center (Squeeze’s “Tempted (By the Fruit of Another)” and Ace’s “How Long”).
But the primary question that many in the crowd had was answered 12 songs into the 21-song set when Clapton played the — very recognizable — improvised acoustic intro to his biggest hit “Layla.” Amazingly, when this man whose guitar virtuosity is unmatched, this man whose career at the time was nearing the half-century mark, played in the same venue two years ago and had the temerity not to play the Derek & the Dominoes classic that is on every rock music aficionado’s Top 10 list, that’s all anyone in Atlanta talked/complained about for days afterward.
No problem this time around.
“Layla,” which drew the largest ovation save for the almost four-minute appeal for an encore that Clapton rewarded with “Sunshine” and the Joe Cocker number “High Time We Went,” came in the middle of a moving five-song acoustic set that also included “Driftin’ Blues,” “Lay Down Sally,” “Wonderful Tonight” and a hauntingly beautiful “Tears in Heaven.”
As his days of entertaining Earth’s mortals wind down, there are plenty of Clapton stories and legends — most true — for music fans to tell and retell. There’s his much-heralded drug abuse, his forays with so-called supergroups Cream, Blind Faith and Derek & the Dominoes, the affair with best-friend Harrison’s wife that the world would come to know as “Layla,” the tragic death of his young son that begat the soul-wrenching “Tears in Heaven.”
But as he proved to music fans — the converted and unconverted alike — in suburban Atlanta on his 68th birthday, this rock god’s story is not yet completely written.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.