Two words came into Aftermath's head shortly into the show uniting these former Blind Faith bandmates and arguably two of classic rock's biggest stars: peerless musicianship. They stayed with us for the rest of the concert. While we can appreciate the bombast and big show of acts like KISS, Springsteen and even Britney, there was something much finer on display at the Toyota Center as the 64-year-old Clapton and 61-year-old Winwood simply played their instruments as extensions of their own bodies - Clapton on his trademark Stratocaster and Winwood switching between guitar and Hammond B-3. And while neither man has ever been overly demonstrative in concert - only Winwood uttered a few words the entire night - they didn't need stage mannerisms to utterly captivate the audience.
It would have been very easy for the pair, at the tail end of a 14-date U.S. run, to rely on big hits: a little "I Shot the Sheriff," a dash of "Back in the High Life Again," for the easy applause. Instead, they chose to stick closely to the set list from their reunion shows last year documented on the great Live From Madison Square Garden CD/DVD. It took them both into more interesting nooks and crannies of their discographies, along with a string of blues covers. Opening with the chugging riff of "Had to Cry Today" (featuring a great guitar duel), the pair also worked through the first side of the Blind Faith album including "Presence of the Lord," "Can't Find My Way Home," and a cover of Buddy Holly's "Well All Right."
But the pair really cooked on the more gutbucket numbers like "Low Down," "Pearly Queen" (though Winwood's ex-Traffic bandmate Dave Mason still does the better version) and "Forever Man" - the last of which found them trading verses like one-upping horny romantic competitors. Clapton's jaw-dropping acoustic finger-picking on "Driftin' Blues" was also a highlight. Houston did get an unexpected surprise in the number slotted for Winwood's man-and-piano solo. While he has been playing "Georgia On My Mind" for this tour and the earlier reunion shows, the ghost of Ray Charles looms large. Instead, Winwood began tinkling the familiar notes of Traffic's "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" to the crowd's utter delight, earning him a standing ovation; he also ran the ivories for the Traffic instrumental "Glad." Clapton's crowd high came with the MTV Unplugged acoustic version of "Layla," though the thought of the two going at a full-bore electric version remained a tantalizing dream.
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After a lengthy "Voodoo Chile," encores "Cocaine" and an incredible "Dear Mr. Fantasy" brought the energy levels to full-bore, and were perfect closers. Clapton and Winwood -along with their crack backing band - have clearly raised each other's game to a higher level. At the show Aftermath spoke with David and Kristy Stephenson, a Houston couple who actually flew to New York for the Madison Square Garden shows last year, and they agreed. "They just feed off each other so well, and Eric needs somebody like Steve to play with him and make him better," David said. "They'll never replace the years they could have spent recording and touring, but I'm grateful we were able to see them one last time." Peerless musicianship indeed.
Set List Had to Cry Today Low Down After Midnight Presence of the Lord Sleeping in the Ground Glad Well All Right Tough Luck Blues Pearly Queen There's a River Forever Man The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys Driftin' Blues How Long Blues Layla Can't Find My Way Home Split Decision Voodoo Chile Encore Cocaine Dear Mr. Fantasy