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Slowhand Jam

Eric Clapton lives up to his legacy

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Eric Clapton played Colorado Monday night in what had been cryptically rumored to be his last concert supporting an album. He'd claimed at the beginning of the tour that he'd never tour an album again, but midway through this version, he looked happy, comfortable, and ready to rock.

The beginning of a tour can be saddled with momentum and red tape--like heading off into the wilderness for six weeks and having to deal with all the logistics before finally stepping off and letting the elements take control. Most notably, Billy Preston had a critical illness early in the tour, and it was a most welcome surprise that he was back in good health for the Colorado stint.

Everyone was on board Monday night, as Clapton was supported by a stellar band of veterans heavyweights like a rejuvenated, boogieing down Preston and Dave Sanchez on keyboards, Andy Fairweatherlow on rhythm guitar, Steve Gadd on drums, and Nathan East on bass. It's about as good a band as Clapton's ever worked with, and he was both at ease and challenged by his mates. You wouldn't want to see this band get much more "seasoned." They're none of them over the hill, as they say, but they can see the top.

The show began with Clapton seated on stage, kicking things off with a solo acoustic "Key to the Highway," which set the tone for a night visiting material from throughout his career. The living room feel was maintained throughout the show, easing the audience out of the acoustic set and playing such clean electric segments, that the crisp, fresh immediacy of the interpretations was always felt.

Unfortunately, the audience was even more seasoned than the band. When you've got floor seats priced in the three figure range, you're courting an audience who's best days are behind them. Clapton may have began the show seated, but the big-spending audience members were content to just sit back and bask, an understandable temptation, but how can you keep still when the man takes his guitar and cuts down to your bone with blues so bad you need a paramedic?

"Tears in Heaven" has gotten even better as the years have gone on. There was so much emotion in the release of that intimate number that it almost obscured the straight ahead strength of the song on its own merits. Removed by time, the song rises to the challenge of remaining both artful and tender.

"Bell Bottom Blues" made a welcome return to the set list, reinvigorating an underplayed gem that appeared newly resplendent in its acoustic casting. "Change the World" was more acoustic than ever, getting extended solos with the bright string slapping picking that can only come out of wood and steel.

"River of Tears" was among the show's highlights. A slow, soulful ballad and another new addition, showcasing Clapton's penetrating interpretative sensibility. It was about as searing as Clapton got all night, and any more of it would have warranted a warning from the Surgeon General.

There were only three songs off his latest album, "Reptile," "Got You on My Mind," and "I Want a Little Girl," the latter giving Sanchez a chance to play some serious barroom blues flavored ivory rolls. And although the songs were neither overly dependent on career highlights or promotional bites from the new album, he showed his legendary knack for guiding an audience through an assortment of untouched classics and new-look landscapes

The show hit its classic rock 'n' blues zenith in a stretch that included "Badge," "Hootchie Coochie Man," "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?" a perfunctory "Cocaine," "Wonderful Tonight," and "Layla." One of the night's best jams came out of a technological breakdown on "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?" Clapton blew his amp on the first verse of the song, and Sanchez and Preston jumped in to the rescue with spontaneous leads on keys and hammond organ, respectively. Clapton got a new guitar in time for a blistering lead that soared out of the ashes of the old amp. With your eyes shut, you'd never hear them miss a beat.

Slowhand lent "Wonderful Tonight" to Sanchez for the evening, who took it out on a synthesized horn solo stroll, breathing new life into the song that served as the calm before the storm of a straight-ahead rock-out on "Layla." Clapton had the guitar part all to himself, but Sanchez and Preston shone once more trading twin key leads from opposite sides of the stage, filtering their own musical explorations through Clapton's own fearless Stratocaster-swath-cutting.

Preston was full of life, particularly in a jubilant encore with him leading the band through "Will it Go Around in Circles," erupting into an exuberant dance at the edge of the stage, as if to qualm any concerns about his health. "Sunshine of Your Love" was a treat as a second encore, the nineteenth stop on an all-encompassing journey that never quit until all the bases were covered.

It's hard to imagine that Clapton's comments earlier this summer about touring were meant to be taken as a definitive end to his live performance career. We can handle the decision not to tour "in support of an album" again, but the concept of future concert circuit without Clapton on it is so inconceivable that we're all bound for a case of collective denial. He continues to do his best work on stage, setting aside any random doubts about his commitment to his craft or his capacity to delve deep into the music.

The evening's coda was a return to the acoustic setting with a loving rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It offered a fitting, stately note of closure, a plaintive plea to follow the birds off into the technicolor sunset. We haven't seen the last of this bird.

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