The fingers are quicker than the eye. Eric Clapton's still are, anyway. During the 59-year-old legend's show Monday at the MCI Center, there was little use trying to match his digits' movement along the fretboard with the notes coming through the house PA.
In a blue button-down shirt, bluejeans and really clean Nikes, Clapton looked a lot better than somebody with his personal bio, so full of drug and booze addictions and personal tragedies, should look. The tones he plucked, picked and/or bent out of the strings on his designer Stratocaster -- which, like so many of Clapton's axes, is available for purchase via auction at Christie's -- were beautifully dirty.
Clapton opened with "Let It Rain" from his 1970 solo debut, as jangly a tune as he's ever put to vinyl. Doyle Bramhall II, the second guitarist in Clapton's eight-piece ensemble, took the night's first solo. Then Clapton went on the first of many loud, long runs to clarify the band's pecking order.
One could quibble with the order of Clapton's set list, which seemed designed to rein in the crowd's enthusiasm until very late in the show. His solo to end a syncopated rendition of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," for example, had the crowd standing and screaming. But Clapton then sat down and went unplugged for a mini-set of deep blues (including "Me and the Devil Blues," "They're Red Hot" and "Milkcow's Calf Blues") from his most recent CD, "Me and Mr. Johnson," a Robert Johnson tribute. The picking was precise and the tribute sincere, but 12-bar acoustic blues are far better suited to a saloon than to an arena. Clapton also killed some momentum by following a raw and raucous version of "Badge," a tune George Harrison wrote for Cream, with "Wonderful Tonight," the wimp-rock classic from 1977's "Slowhand" LP.
But the set also contained some pleasant surprises. Clapton dug deep for "Walk Out in the Rain," a Bob Dylan song he had recorded for 1978's "Backless," and "Got to Get Better in a Little While," one of the lesser-known tunes from his Derek and the Dominoes days. The iconic piece from that period, "Layla," probably bores Clapton by now. But he delivered a version as heavy and heartfelt as possible, compelling many fans old enough to know better to strap on air guitars and try to ape one of the most famous and fleet guitar breaks in rock history. Again, there was little use trying to match their digits' movement with the notes coming through the house PA.
Eric Clapton, playing at a Dallas festival June 5, had the crowd at MCI Center on its feet Monday.