I was fortunate enough to see Eric Clapton's first and last U. S. arena Blues concerts. And a few in between! The tours were similar, with songs presented in chronological order. Reflecting the evolution of the Blues, Eric began with an acoustic set then proceeded to electric blues, with emotional, blistering guitar solos appearing later in the concerts. Consequently, there were faithfully reproduced early Blues standards and also "Eric- enhanced" versions. Both tours included the unreleased gems "Kidman Blues," ".44" and "Ain't Nobody's Business."
Eric played about two hours each night. He never smoked. He wore white T-shirts in 1994 and blue T-shirts in 1995. My theory is that the same outfits may have been necessary if the still pictures of him shown on the monitors were actually obtained at some earlier time.
There were differences in the 1994 and 1995 tours. Unreleased songs heard during the 1994 tour included "County Jail," "Can't Judge Nobody" and "Sweet Home Chicago" (post-publication correction: A version of "County Jail" was on "No Reason to Cry"). In 1995, the interesting "I'm Gonna Cut Your Head" and the stunning "Everyday I Have the Blues" were substituted. In 1994, songs with astonishing guitar work alternated with "Crosscut Saw" and "Born Under a Bad Sign," which showcased the horn section. These two songs and "Goin' Away Baby" were dropped from the 1995 lineup, but "From Four Until Late" and "Before You Accuse Me" were added. Jimmie Vaughan joined Eric for encores, while Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown did not.
Individual concerts differed some. During "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" in New York, Eric was so absorbed in the music that he seemed to be in another world. When the band paused as he savagely stretched a certain note, I thought my heart had stopped. No guitar gently weeping, here!
In Cleveland, "Can't Judge Nobody" was not played. Cleveland's auditorium was immaculate, having just opened the day before. Cleveland fans cheered the most for the guitar solos and Eric seemed eager to oblige.
Many people wanted to be in Cleveland on September 2 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert. I was perfectly content to be in Atlanta watching a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member play "Nothing But The Blues!" The injustice of the 1994 tour bypassing the Deep South, birthplace of the Blues, was finally corrected! I only heard "Early in the Morning" in Atlanta. "Ain't Nobody's Business" was a wonderful way to end his shows. With only piano accompaniment, Eric sang "So I'm gonna do just what I want to anyway and don't care if you all despise me," summarizing his intention to honor Blues legends with no Rock and Roll. Then the full band's powerful reprise illustrated the often hazy distinction between Blues and Rock and Roll!
Eric seemed a bit melancholy in Chapel Hill, yet still played magnificently. "Groaning the Blues" replaced "Early in the Morning." I was able to verify with Lee Dickson, Eric's guitar technician, that the red ES-335 he played during the Freddy King songs is the same one he played in Cream.
Eric seemed more cheerful and genuinely surprised by the audience's reception as he took the stage in Charlotte. That seemed odd, because he always gets a standing ovation before playing a note! He seemed to put as much effort into our local show as he did at the "Garden." "Groaning the Blues" was omitted. Instead, I finally got to hear him play "Double Trouble!"
And then there was Chicago. While shopping on Michigan Avenue, I ran into Peter Buck, REM's guitarist. I told him I could not attend the REM concert that night because I was going to see Eric Clapton! Peter said he would like to see Eric play the Blues. I told him it was the last night of the tour, but since the REM show started at 7:00 PM, he may be able to catch part of Eric's show. Pretty nervy of me, in retrospect!
Eric commented how fitting it was that the tour was ending in Chicago. The set list was essentially the same, although "Groaning the Blues" was back in the rotating song slot. "Kidman Blues," one of my favorites, was enhanced by thunderous applause as Eric sang "Here I am in Chicago, and I'm doing very well." A better version of "Everyday I Have the Blues" is not humanly possible. For the encore, Eric began a ferocious version of "Sweet Home Chicago" without even introducing the gentleman on the other white Stratocaster. I'm not sure if the audience or the performers were more delighted about Eric Clapton trading guitar licks with Buddy Guy!
After the show, Buddy Guy's "Legends" rapidly filled to overflowing. John Duich, the guitarist for "Blue Balls," toyed with the audience, saying "It's nice that all of you came just to see me. Of course, you never know who might drop by." Someone pointed out that Buddy Guy and blues guitarist Lonnie Brooks had materialized in the reserved section to the right of the stage. Thirty more minutes of speculation suddenly ended with simultaneous gasps, shrieks and cheers as Eric Clapton entered the club! Unfortunately but understandably, he did not play or sign autographs. I couldn't even bribe the bouncers into letting me shake his hand! It was still thrilling to stand ten feet from Eric Clapton, watch him chat with Buddy and Lonnie, see him applaud with us when the band played "Walkin' Blues" as a tribute, and see him chuckle at the audience's hoots and hollers as Lynn Jordan crooned "Since I Fell for You." Five hours later, in the airport, I was looking around in a vain attempt to catch another glimpse of Eric!
Reprinted with permission from "Slowhand Magazine," December 30, 1995 issue. Copyright 1995, all rights reserved. "Slowhand" is published quarterly by E.C. Publications, PO Box 488, Pelham, NY 10803. Subscription: $20 a year (U.S.) $25 (Overseas). Back issues are $5.