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The Music Scene

Posted: 12:36 a.m. Thursday, March 28, 2013

Eric Clapton provides master class in musicianship at Gwinnett 

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Akili-Casundria Ramsess
Eric Clapton turns 68 on Saturday, but the blues-rock guitarist is as nimble a player as ever.

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Akili-Casundria Ramsess
Clapton's range of songs and styles were on display during this 50th anniversary tour.
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Akili-Casundria Ramsess
Jakob Dylan and The Wallflowers opened the show.

By Melissa Ruggieri

[I'm on with my rock 'n' roll pal Kaedy Kiely at 97.1 The River every Wednesday at 6:50 and 7:50 a.m. to talk about the latest rock news. Tune in to hear what's up!]

 “Enough with the lullaby crap. Turn it up!” the charmer behind me at Eric Clapton yelled two songs into the set.

He seemed to be placated when Clapton traded in his acoustic – used on the breezy openers “Hello Old Friend” and “My Father’s Eyes” – for his Fender Stratocaster and tore into “Tell the Truth,” the Derek and the Dominos barn burner.

But that range is exactly what has made Clapton such an appealing enigma for 50 years – yes, this is his 50th anniversary tour, too, Rolling Stones fans – his ability to morph from stately rocker to Lite-FM balladeer and produce quality work in both worlds.

He’s also gutsy enough to enlist journeyman musician Paul Carrack to share keyboard duties on this tour and allow him to perform two of his best-known songs – Squeeze’s “Tempted” and Ace’s “How Long.”

That was the type of variety that for two hours on Wednesday night at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, Clapton, a typically unassuming figure on stage in baggy jeans, vest, glasses and a hint of scruff, and his extraordinary seven-piece band provided.

The well-paced show, set against a basic black backdrop and under a halo of tasteful lights, featured one of two new songs on his recently released “Old Sock” album, the strutting “Gotta Get Over,” along with welcome reminders of his distinctive past.

There was the bluesy gospel of “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” anchored by the awesome rhythm section of drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Willie Weeks and elevated to soaring level by backup singers Michelle John and Sharon White. The song also included a Clapton master class on balancing nuance with shredding, as the man often referred to as “God” in musician circles showed why that nickname still applies.

During the now-obligatory sit-down portion of the set, Clapton, who turns 68 on Saturday, moved to a chair center stage and riffed through “Driftin’ Blues,” a hit in the 1940s by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.

Then came the quartet of fan pleasers: The chug-a-long sing-a-long “Lay Down Sally,” burnished with a rustic sweetness and some nifty dobro from Greg Leisz; the somber “Tears in Heaven,” during which you couldn’t help but wonder if the pain is still fresh for Clapton every time he sings it; the unplugged version of “Layla”; and the still achingly romantic “Wonderful Tonight,” the iconic electric guitar lines handled by the ever-impressive Doyle Bramhall II.

Clapton made no secret of his adoration of Robert Johnson as he glided through four of his songs, including the slide-infused “Stones in my Passway,” an explosive “Crossroads” and a languid “Little Queen of Spades” which spotlighted the noteworthy talents of longtime keyboardist Chris Stainton.

Throughout the concert –  which was sold out but for a few scattered seats and filled with the demographic you would expect at a Clapton show with a few appearances by second and third generation fans – Clapton’s voice veered from fiery growls to downy purrs as needed…once again illuminating his unmatched range.

 Openers The Wallflowers turned in a perfectly pleasant, if unmemorable 40-minute set that included a few new songs from their underappreciated recent album, “Glad All Over,” such as “Devil’s Waltz” and “Misfits and Lovers.”

The band’s undynamic stage presence – except for sparkplug keyboardist Rami Jaffee, a shaggy, fidgety fellow wisely placed at the front of the stage – doesn’t make for a great fit in an arena. The Wallflowers’ set last fall at Smith’s Olde Bar thrived in the much more conducive environment, although radio hits “6th Avenue Heartache” and “The Difference” – performed tightly and with strong vocals from Jakob Dylan – received an enthusiastic response from the Gwinnett crowd.

Melissa Ruggieri

About Melissa Ruggieri

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for Atlanta Music Scene blog on ajc.

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