To know Eric Clapton, you need to know blues music. After all, that’s where slowhand himself got his start with guitar. And while he’s ventured into pop music and acoustic ballads over the last sixty years of his career, Clapton always comes back to his roots in the blues.
The blues have always had it rough as a music genre. It seems it is always in need of saving, until, every few years, a video of a kid prodigy playing the blues in a bar somewhere goes viral, and commenters say that the kid is finally the one to save it – or at least keep it alive. And with core artists like Buddy Guy retiring from live music, The blues is continuing to lose its luminaries, which makes someone like Clapton important, as he’s one of the few still to be able to perform blues music in hockey stadiums, and not just dimly lit happy-hour bars.
The Xcel hosted an older crowd, the typical audience who would admire a 78 year old guitarist, and a spattering of youngsters who – if they were not dragged along by their adults – were likely here to learn guitar from one of the greats. The stadium was nearly sold out, which I found to be surprising given that Clapton, while a staple in guitar culture, is not the household name he used to be. However, it has been quite some time since he was last in town – 14 years in fact – likely prompting fans to cash out on what could be last call to see him perform. And cashing out is what many people did, with ground level tickets stretching past $1,600 before fees. If there’s anything Clapton has the blues about, it’s certainly not his bank account.
This small midwest tour is somewhat of a delightful surprise, especially given the amount of time that’s lapsed since his last visit to town. St. Paul marks one of only five stops on his 2023 American tour, as Clapton typically prefers to tour closer to his home in England, with an extensive European schedule set for the next spring. Oddly enough, Clapton’s tour isn’t tied to any latest album or collaboration, outside his annual Crossroads Guitar Festival in Los Angeles next week. The festival benefits Clapton’s recovery center in Antigua, which he alluded to briefly during tonight’s show. As he took his seat for the acoustic portion of the night, he spoke to the crowd – a rarity in his sets outside a quick thank you after some songs – saying “As few of you know, this is like home away from home for me.” He smiled, “A lovely place called Hazelden. Which I visited…Twice..So thank you.” referencing his sobriety from alcoholism. Minnesota’s own Hazelden treatment center continues to be home for many celebrity rehabilitations.
While every guitarist has a bag of tricks to pull from, there’s not much guitar fireworks left in Clapton’s bag, especially following debilitating peripheral neuropathy Clapton revealed before his 2016 album I Still Do, and subsequently blames it’s further progression on from his covid vaccine, something he’s been quite vocal about. Tonight, Clapton kept the politics and health conspiracies out of the music, and played through a setlist of both his own, and common blues standards. Because of the nerve damage, Clapton’s guitar playing isn’t as incendiary as it has been in the past. However, it was still remarkably sturdy. He opened the set with a tribute to his late friend, guitarist, and leader of The Band, Robbie Robertson, who we lost in August, Performing back to back covers of It Makes No Difference and The Shape I’m in.
Blues standards took up a significant portion of the 16 song setlist, and since many were in the same key, they seemed to be somewhat of a bore to the audience who may have just been there to hear Cocaine or Wonderful Tonight, both of which came later in the set. Blues standards like Key to The Highway, Crossroads, Stormy Monday, Driftin Blues, Call Me The Breeze, and Hoochie Coochie Man, all revolved around 3 keys and similar tempos, making it feel somewhat repetitive as the night progressed. However, if you’re a blues aficionado, you’ll know that each of those songs had their unique charms. His cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff, Clapton’s first chart topping single back in 1974, had the most inspired guitar solo of the night, a highlight being that most of the songs were blues numbers with solos traded around the stage by his band.
Six songs in, Clapton and his band moved to the acoustic portion of the set, performing Driftin, Call Me The Breeze, and Clapton’s preferred style of playing his most recognizable song, Layla. Tears in Heaven was the tear jerker of the night, perhaps much to the chagrin of the younger crowd who may know of the song simply because of a line from a Phoebe Bridgers tune that sparked conspiracy. However, of the 15,000 in attendance tonight, the Pheobe Bridgers/Eric Clapton crossover was likely slim to none.
The enduring reverence for Clapton (See: Clapton is God) is remarkable, especially considering that he’s made his career performing mostly cover songs. In fact, of the 16 song setlist performed tonight, only 4 of the songs Clapton performed were his original compositions. One could be critical of him building his fame off of others, However, in an era where the essence of troubadour-ism has seemingly fallen off, it’s important to recognize Eric Clapton as precisely that: a troubadour. He continues to embody the spirit of a troubadour—a vessel to carry songs crafted by others and deliver them to an audience.
While fans may see his gift only in his virtuoso guitar skills, or perhaps the blusier, gravely quality of his vocals as he’s grown older, One of the qualities of Clapton that is often missed is his embodiment of the troubadour role – to channel the soul of a song and infusing it with his unique, heartfelt interpretation so that it resonates with people. In this, Clapton is helping ensure that these songs, especially the ever-struggling blues, is music that endures.
01. The Shape I’m In*
02. It Makes No Difference**
03. Key To The Highway
04. Hoochie Coochie Man
05. I Shot The Sheriff
06. Driftin Blues’
07. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
08. Call Me The Breeze
10. Tears In Heaven
11. Tearin’ Us Apart
12. Wonderful Tonight
14. Stormy Monday
16. High Time We Went (with Jimmie Vaughan)
* Written by Robbie Robertson for The Band’s album, “Stage Fright.”
** Written by Robbie Robertson for The Band’s album, “Northern Lights – Southern Cross.”