[16 June 2009]
It’s not every night that two performers sharing the same stage can give you the musical history that Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood offer on their new tour. Clapton, 64, and Winwood, 61—that’s a combined 125 years of classic rocker—liked their three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in February 2008 so much they decided to take their show on the road in a 14-date American tour, which touched off on June 10 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The pairing of two or more marquee rock statesmen on the same bill is nothing new, but what makes the Clapton/Winwood tour unique is that they’re truly sharing the stage—i.e., at the same time. While one normally might have expected an opening act of Winwood crooning his ‘80s solo hits, followed by Clapton slogging through worn gems like “Wonderful Tonight” and “Lay Down Sally”, this incarnation of Clapton/Winwood is very much a showcase in progressive rock—prog rock, as it came to be known in the millenial age of catch-phrase abbreviations. The genre came over the ocean in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s during the second wave of British musicians playing the white man’s version of the black man’s blues. On this current tour, the two have dipped generously into their impressive band histories that includes Traffic, Derek and the Dominos, and of course, Blind Faith, the ur-Supergroup, whose bright and brief candle burned 40 years ago.
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Eric Clapton and Seve Winwood joined with Ginger Baker and Rick Grech to form Brit-rock’s biggest supergroup of 1969. (Crosby, Stills & Nash would arise out of the Laurel Canyon scene that same year.) The band’s name referred ironically to Clapton’s own fears that the band would fall prey to the same kind of music-machine hype that had surrounded Cream. Blind Faith was the archetypal late ‘60s prog-rock album: A trippy, laid-back but guitar-heavy mix of blues rock, folk, and jazz improv. It gave us two great AOR radio hits: The Winwood-penned “Can’t Find My Way Home”, the perfect stoner anthem; and “Presence of the Lord”, Clapton’s ode to his rustic Hurtwood estate, and not (as I’d either once heard or imagined) to the feeling of musical harmony he felt with Blind Faith.
The story behind the Blind Faith album cover is even more provocative than the band’s own formation. Photgrapher Bob Seidemann came up with the idea of showing a young girl, nude, holding a silver toy spaceship. The combination of Edenic innocence and sci-fi futurism was perfect for a summer in which humans first landed on the moon and, a month later, sought to go “back to the garden” with Woodstock. Remebered Seidemann: “To symbolize the achievement of human creativity and its expression through technology a space ship was the material object. To carry this new spore into the universe, innocence would be the ideal bearer, a young girl, a girl as young as Shakespeare’s Juliet.” Seidemann spotted a teen girl one day on the train in the London Tube and gave her his card. The family called back, said the girl was shy and on the verge of womanhood and that her posing nude wouldn’t be appropriate… but offered their younger daughter instead.
Seidemann’s vision was realized, and rumors would build around the identity of the preteen, red-haired girl with bud-like breasts who appeared on the album: She was Ginger Baker’s illegitimate daughter. She was the group’s love slave, kept in a cage. This was 1969, after all, and there’s no urban legend like a stoner urban legend. (Others making the rounds that year: Paul McCartney was dead, hinted at by clues on the cover of Abbey Road, released that fall. Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane committed suicide in October by jumping out of a window (true) because she was tripping on LSD (not true). A guild of Mexican marijuana farmers had hired a Vietcong military advisor to help them combat police helipcopters.)
But Americans didn’t get to see that cover in 1969. It was a pivotal year in the cultural battleground regarding art and censorship. In Stanley v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the State could not prohibit mere possession of obscene matter on the grounds that it may lead to antisocial conduct. The provocative film I Am Curious (Yellow) was allowed to be shown for the first time in America, and Oh! Calcutta! played to packed houses in New York City. But American society was still largely a conservative one. A Boston judge sentenced a theater owner to six months in jail plus a $1,000 fine for screening the lesbian film, The Killing of Sister George, which he described as a “lecherous, lustful picture.” East Village performances of Che! were shut down for its nudity and simulated sex acts. The city of Cleveland, Ohio, declared the cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins obscene and ordered the Main Line record chain to remove it from its shelves. To avoid any such issues in the States, Atco Records ultimately opted to release the American pressings of Blind Faith with a sepia-toned cover image of the band sitting on Clapton’s porch at Hurtwood—a quaint and tasteful cop-out.
The year also seemed to signal a new stage (pun intended) in rock concert etiquette. The wall between performer and audience became increasingly blurred, and by the end of the 1960s, concertgoers seemed no longer content to watch a performance as spectators; they wanted to be a part of the performance. “Somehow,” said Keith Richards, speaking with the experience of December’s ill-fated Altamont Free Concert, “in America in ’69… one got the feeling they really want to suck you out.” When Blind Faith made their American debut at Madison Square Garden in July, a thirty-minute riot broke out. Winwood’s piano was trashed and Baker got clubbed on the head by a cop.
The following month saw the release of the band’s debut record—and also their final performance as a group. Clapton, indeed, became disillusioned with the group and transitioned over to his next phase, with Delaney & Bonnie, the act that opened for Blind Faith that summer. Winwood moved to another one-stop, with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and then reunited with Traffic to record the classic John Barleycorn Must Die.
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Earlier in the day, as we sat in a Manhattan office just a short drive across the river from the venue for the tour’s opening night, I told my publicist that I was going to see Clapton and Winwood at the Meadowlands. “Awesome,” she said, and then added, “Remind me where that is again?” I took it not as a sign of cultural ignorance—on the contrary, she’s decidedly hip—but as yet another sobering sign that the music of big, overblown concerts—the music I’d grown up with—has been left behind.
In 1974, producer and music writer Jon Landau penned his classic Real Paper review, “Growing Young with Rock and Roll,” which included a line that’s become so quoted and requoted that I won’t replicate it here; suffice to say that it included the words “Bruce Springsteen” and “future” and “rock and roll.” The then-24-year-old’s prophetic words have overshadowed what was a larger confessional piece on the writer’s disillusionment with rock music. “It’s four in the morning and raining,” he begins the piece. “I’m 27 today, feeling old, listening to my records, and remembering that things were different a decade ago.”
Looking (I’m repeadtedly told) 27-ish but with a license that nevertheless says 41, I sat in the lower-level of the Izod Center (the latest name slapped on the arena at the Meadowlands Sports Complex), watched Clapton and Winwood relive their salad days, and pondered the state of classic rock. The genre has become nearly synonymous with “arena rock,” a term that encapuslates all the sins of excess that came as Madison Avenue recognized a growing market in Woodstock Nation and molded it into the Pepsi Generation. The ironic thing is that I love music and go to lots of concerts, yet I’m not the ideal concertgoer. My mind tends to wander during performances. I get anxious that the band won’t play my favorite songs. I feel guilty for not going crazy for every single inclusion on the setlist and silently resent feeling pressure to do so. And then I’m keenly aware of the incongruity of sharing a communal, musical experience, reveling in messages of changing the world and letting love rule… only to flip each other off in the parking lot at the end of the night.
But I’ve been going to a lot of classic rock shows lately—all part of my own personal “See ‘em While They’re Still Standing” 2008-2009 Tour—and tracking how my old music heroes are aging. I saw Springsteen, who somehow contines to transcend (in this post-Rock age) his uncoolness. He simply wears you down with his sincerity and his energy, won’t let you sit down because the highway is alive tonight and there’s seven nights to rock and you can’t sit down.
I saw Van Morrison perform Astral Weeks—cranky, bloated, and brilliant, the anti-Springsteen for whom the audience is just the excuse for the performance but not really the reason, because it’s all about the music itself and if the crowd likes what he’s doing, well, that’s just fine, but not necessary.
I saw Bob Dylan, the man who’d single-handedly killed Tin Pan Alley and gave us about 40% of all rock and roll today, in Harlem—and was disappointed. His performances have been reduced to unrecognizable versions of classic songs, supported by a cheesy backing band that look like extras from Blues Brothers 2000. I surmised that Dylan’s management had instructed them not to stray from their designated spots on stage right out of concern that any sudden movement would distract The Master, who remained planted behind his organ on stage left, facing His Band and not us. At one point he wandered out to center stage stared out at the audience, looking disoriented. He stayed there for a moment but was startled by his shadow and quickly scampered back to the safety of his organ-hole, signaling six more weeks of winter.
Neil Young’s Garden performance redeemed Dylan. Young’s performance redeemed himself. His is the music of cinammon and rust and the last dying sunset at the end of the world, and when you hear the open, cruching chords of “Hey Hey, My My” just two songs into the set, it will make you forget all the sins of a long, hit-and-miss career. Young’s bizarre ode to the Sex Pistols—the antithesis of arena rock, after all—from during the days of disco still packs more of a punch than pretty much any song you’ll ever hear live. Despite the occasional clunkers, Young proved that he can play—and yes, rock—more than anyone at his age (63) should be able to.
Thus came Clapton/Winwood to the Meadowlands, the latest act to carry the banner of prog rock, on June 10. With them was Abe Laboriel, Jr., a one-man percussion section well-equipped to replicate Ginger Baker’s theatrics; Willie Weeks manning bass; Chris Stainton helping out Winwood on keyboards, and two soulful backup singers (“the ladies,” Winwood sheepishly called them). I’ve never understood why it’s necessary to have a female chorus for a hard-rock concert.Vocally, it doesn’t fit the genre; you can’t hear their voices above the rhythm section anyway; and the tambourines they’re invariably given to make it look like they have a key role in the band always make me think of Tracey Partridge or Josie and the Pussycats. Yet they’ve become strangely requisite at these things.
In the leadoff spot, “Had to Cry” (the opener on the Blind Faith record) demonstrated that Winwood’s reedy voice has barely aged over the years. He seemed tentative on his Hammond organ solo on “Sleeping in the Ground”, a great cutting-room floor track from the ‘69 sessions, but two songs later showed he still has his ivory chops on the Traffic instrumental, “Glad”. On the latter, Clapton joined in so seamlessly that one had to remember he actually hadn’t been in Traffic with Winwood. The two played off each other throughout the night, trading appreciative smiles in “well done” moments. On “Presence of the Lord”, the two alternated vocals, which seems fitting given the tiff that Clapton, in his recent biography, described having had with Winwood during the original recording of the song. Likewise, the Derek and the Dominos number “Tell the Truth” is a great showcase for Winwood’s own vocals.
Some blues numbers (“Low Down”, “Tough Luck Blues”, “Pearly Queen”) felt like perfunctory rest stops along the setlist, but Clapton’s “Forever Man”—a song commissioned by Warner Bros. for his initially rejected 1985 album, Behind the Sun—energized the crowd. Ol’ Slow Hand took five as Winwood soloed on “Georgia on My Mind”, a signature cover song ever since he started out as a precocious 15-year-old with the Spencer Davis Group, when his voice was compared to Ray Charles’. (Imagine if for his directoral debut, Kenneth Branagh had not taken on Laurence Olivier with Henry V but had instead donned blackface and done Paul Robeson in Emperor Jones.) Clapton then came back for the acoustic centerpeice: “Driftin’ Blues” (an EC solo), unplugged versions of Dominos tracks “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Layla”, and the happily received “Can’t Find My Way Home”.
Plugging back in for “Split Decision” (a minor hit from Winwood’s biggest solo album, 1986’s Back in the High Life), Clapton/Winwood were merely warming up for the blistering, Hendrix-inspired heights of “Little Wing”, the track that Clapton’s Dominos had included on the Layla album as his tribute to recently departed Jimi—and (heresey!) actually made better.
Raising the blues bar even higher, Clapton next strummed the opening chords of “Voodoo Chile”, the 15-minute epic from Hendrix’s Electric Ladlyland, and launched into a faithful recreation that was just filthy (in that good kind of way), summoning the demonic steam of the bayou swamps.
Understand how good this was—that it wasn’t the red wine sipped from a plastic glass, or the contact high from the ever-present waft of marijuana smoke, or the pills I may or may not be taking for medicinal reasons at this point. Hearing these two songs, I couldn’t help thinking they represented the tortured heights of the genre, that Clapton had taken the blues and reworked the narrative of the idiom—from “Someone done me wrong” to “Somebody done me wrong and let me show you the broken glass and the open veins.”
One happily forgets that Jeff Healey ever tried to play the blues.
“Cocaine”, Clapton’s own cover signature as a solo artist, officially closed the blues-drenched set. The encore of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” Traffic’s 1967 hit, was psychedelic icing on the cake.
With concert T-shirts slung like pelts over the shoulders of concertgoers, we all rushed to the parking deck in a vein attempt to beat the traffic. We honked our horns at each other, anxious to head out onto Garden State Parkway.
My publicist can have her 100-person-capacity concerts at some trendy warehouse in Williamsburg. I’ve seen rock ‘n’ roll’s past, and my faith in it has been restored for another night.