FORT WORTH — On opening night of his first tour since the pandemic began, Eric Clapton wisely let the music do the talking.
The 76-year-old British guitar god arrived Monday night at Dickies Arena in the middle of a strange brew of controversy. Earlier this year, after helping Van Morrison record the anti-lockdown tune “Stand and Deliver,” the normally close-lipped Clapton wrote an angry public letter alleging the AstraZeneca vaccine made his hands numb and caused other “disastrous” side effects.
Clapton later issued a statement rejecting England’s plans to require vaccine passes at certain public venues and threatened to cancel his concerts there. (On Sunday, England scrapped plans for the vaccine pass, at least for now.)
And last month, he wrote and released “This Has Gotta Stop,” a thinly-veiled attack on mandates and vaccines, which he prudently opted not to play Monday.
The Clapton COVID Kerfuffle marks an unexpected chapter in the career of a musician who’s long presented himself as apolitical. You have to go back 45 years for the previous chapter, and that one was a doozy: the infamous 1976 anti-immigrant rant he made onstage in England during the height of his drug and alcohol addictions. That tirade inspired Britons to launch the Rock Against Racism movement.
Yet if Clapton is turning cranky again in his 70s, he certainly didn’t show it Monday. The concert was business as usual, with the singer-guitarist rarely speaking to the near-capacity crowd during the hour-and-40 minute show.
He did make one roundabout mention of the pandemic. Thirty minutes into the show, he pointed out that one of the last times he played live was two years ago in D-FW — referring to the Crossroads Guitar Festival at American Airlines Center in September 2019.
But the long hiatus barely took a toll. Clapton was back with a vengeance, ripping out long, suspense-buildings solos in “I Shot the Sheriff” and two Robert Johnson tunes, “Little Queen of Spades,” featuring some nice B.B. King-style fretwork, and “Crossroads,” overhauled as a funk-jazz rocker.
As a guitarist, he’s nowhere near as fast as he was in his early days, when earned the facetious nickname “Slowhand.” Diagnosed with nerve damage in 2013, he’s mellowed noticeably in recent years, but he sounded just fine Monday night. His style has always had more to do with soul than speed anyway.
On opening night of a short U.S. tour, the players were a bit rusty at times. Clapton uncorked the occasional bum note on guitar, his singing was hesitant now and again and keyboardist Chris Stainton had trouble fitting his solos into several songs.
For the most part, however, the show was loose and powerful like fiery late-night jam session. The set list was just as unpredictable.
He did play a half-dozen hits, including “Tears in Heaven” and a drowsy acoustic shuffle version of “Layla.” And he chased them with his usual flurry of blues standards, including a slow, swinging take on Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.”
Some of the high points arrived in unexpected tunes, like the funky Derek & the Dominos outtake “Got To Get Better In A Little While” and a pair of lovely unplugged tunes: the new instrumental “For Kerry,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Man of the World,” which he dedicated to the late Peter Green.
He got impeccable backing from his 8-piece band which featured veteran drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Nathan East and Paul Carrack, who stole the spotlight with his gospel-tinged organ solos. But the star of the group was his longtime left-hand man, Dallas-born guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, whose semi-dirty textures provided the perfect contrast to Clapton’s more fluid style.
Clapton ended the show on a high note, with another Big D native, guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, adding fuel to the fire on Joe Cocker’s hit “High Time We Went.”
Earlier, Vaughan had opened the show with his own short set of blues classics and originals. But his cameo in the big finale was even sweeter. As Vaughan once put it, if he hadn’t been so awestruck listening to Clapton’s first album in his Oak Cliff bedroom back in 1966, he would never have mustered the courage to become a musician.