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Hello Old Friend: Eric Clapton Sends His Regards

Slowhand and friends shake the Frank Erwin Center
Raoul Hernandez, 4:20pm, Fri. Mar. 22, 2013
photo by Gary Miller
Eric Clapton (l) and Steve Jordon on “Hello Old Friend” at the Frank Erwin Center, 3.17.13

Gary Clark Jr. encores his AMAs sweep tomorrow at San Antonio’s Maverick Festival. Many hoped GCJ would cameo at Eric Clapton’s Erwin Center show last Sunday. Jimmie Vaughan did.

In his first appearance since suffering a heart attack in January, Vaughan sauntered out onstage for the fifth number of the two-hour set, the evening’s host bowing and sweeping to welcome his longtime local crony. Doyle Bramhall II, Clapton’s executive right-hand man and resident southpaw, wore a Cheshire smile throughout the all-too-brief guest spot, resting his hands on his guitar and letting Slowhand, JLV, and pedal steel wizard Greg Leisz trade licks on a cover of Albert Collins’ “Black Cat Bone.” Yeow.

The concert – Clapton’s first in Texas since touring with Steve Winwood in 2009 – had already taken flight on opener “Hello Old Friend.” For some, having God, 68 next Saturday, stride out onstage and pick up an acoustic guitar for the very first song might have been AARP-larming, but when he strummed out the greeting from 1976’s No Reason to Cry, I almost expected Bob Dyan next to reprise that LP’s melting song collaboration, “Sign Language.”

Instead, the sixpiece group and a pair of African-American lady sweetners on back-up vox eased into “My Father’s Eyes,” a song premiered during the late-Nineties Pilgrim tour stop at San Antonio’s Alamodome. Then, it was radioactive. On Red River last weekend, the song spun pure, silver-lined soul, Bramhall’s solo as trim and clean shaven as Clapton himself.

Derek & the Dominos’ “Tell the Truth” missed local domino Bobby Whitlock, swaggering rather than hell-hound-on-my-trail howling, but EC had the organ spot sewn up in English crooner Paul Carrack, whose inimitable vocals on Squeeze’s “Tempted” and Ace’s “How Long?” were both revived here. Carrack also sang show closer “High Time We Went,” a Joe Cocker cover. Drum demon Steve Jordan paired up with bass MVP Willie Weeks, the two buffeting the spare stage set all night long. A second Layla selection, “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” began as a sort of aggro-ragga and ended with the headliner’s high, bent notes.

“I Shot the Sheriff” holstered its usual heft.

“Nice to be in a music town,” thanked Clapton as stagehands prepared the seated mini-set. “You can feel it. You can feel it out there.”

“Lay Down Sally,” “Tears in Heaven,” “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Layla” all in a row bowled over the teaming arena, but the true treat strung together four Robert Johnson songs directly thereafter: “Stones in My Passway,” “Love in Vain,” “Crossroads,” and “Little Queen of Spades,” all of them on two legs and fairly electrifying.

The first found Clapton and Bramhall starting cold and in unison, with Leisz on mandolin, and later trading stinging slide guitar, while “Love in Vain” made the Rolling Stones’ 1969 take on it sound unplugged. “Crossroads” came on like two tons of trouble, Bramhall all freight train first and Clapton loosening a siren of melody.

“Cocaine” ended the main set with Clapton prompting the Erwin Center to exhort J.J. Cale’s last word in bathroom stall rock & roll etiquette, and in the rumbling first encore, “Sunshine of Your Love,” Jordan’s thunderous cymbal bashes lifting him off his drum stool and Clapton turning to face his amps to coax Disraeli Gears from his trademark Stratocaster, Bramhall’s stewardship of the group could be felt in the crescendo of the song: 20th Century brawn executed with a new millennial sonic boom. Pow!

Catch Bramhall, Clapton, Clark, Vaughan et al at what’s likely the last Crossroads Guitar Festival, Madison Square Garden, New York, April 12 & 13.

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