On the gentle title track of his 2005 album "Back Home," Eric Clapton sang that he's "got no need to stay 'round here no more."
Fortunately, he's choosing to stick around, anyway.
Nearly 45 years after winning worldwide fans with the Yardbirds, the British guitar legend is as active and prolific now as he's ever been. He's released three albums in the last four years, including the 2004 Robert Johnson homage "Me and Mr. Johnson" and last year's Grammy-nominated "The Road to Escondido," a collaboration with J.J. Cale, who wrote Clapton hits such as "Cocaine" and "After Midnight."
Clapton has also been on tour for the past year, winning uniformly rave reviews for shows that not only promote his latest efforts but also dip liberally into the ouvre of the short-lived Derek & the Dominos, with whom he recorded his seminal 1970? album "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs."
So despite his claims to the contrary, Clapton, who turned 62 on Friday, seems well shy of retiring.
"It's never gotten boring for me," Clapton explains. "It's never the same. It's always a challenge to try to get the groove with a bunch of musicians, to try to find the common place where we all really function well together.
"I think I appreciate the opportunities more these days. It would be really churlish of me to get complacent or ungrateful."
Clapton is, in fact, more settled than he's been perhaps at any other point of his life. After decades of substance abuse, creative hubris and genuine tragedy -- including the 1991, death of his four-year-old son Conor after a fall from a New York apartment building window -- Clapton is enjoying "a good time and a fairly contended kind of life" with his second wife, American-born Melia McEnery, and their two young daughters. He also has a 22-year-old daughter, Ruth, from a previous relationship.
That, he says, has "taken the stress off (and) given me a great deal of security. That frees me up to do this (music). I can do it for fun. It's not being used to attract anybody or to be anything other than the music I want to make at any point in time."
His bonhomme has not gone unnoticed by those around him. "His playing is as fierce as I've ever heard it," notes guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, who toured with Clapton in 2001 and 2004 and is part of his current band. "He hasn't lost his love for playing and, if anything, I think he enjoys it more now."
Keyboardist Chris Stainton, another Clapton band veteran, agrees.
"He keeps complaining about being tired and everything, a bit bored with it all, but I think he does love going on stage still and being able to do that," Stainton says. "His guitar playing continually blows me away, too. He'll suddenly come up with something and you just go, 'Oh, Christ, he's still got it...'
"So why shouldn't he go out? He's still filling stadiums and stuff, so...why not?"
The current version of Clapton's band -- which includes the all-star rhythm section of drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Willie Weeks and until recently featured Derek Trucks, who had to return to duty with the Allman Brothers Band -- was put together specifically to take on the Derek & the Dominos' material. The group is opening with a blast of five Derek songs -- "Tell the Truth," "Key to the Highway," "Got to Get Better in a Little While," "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?" and Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" -- as well as playing "Layla" towards the end of the shows.
Bramhall says the concentration is simply a case of Clapton chasing some creative terrain that still holds some fresh appeal to him.
"I think it's just because he hasn't played this stuff very much -- and some of it never before," the guitarist explains. "He's always looking for a challenge and changing things up. I've done shows with him when he's played a night full of Top 40 hits, and here he is dipping way back into some of the more obscure things he's done."
And while Clapton is unquestionably the star and focus of the show, both Bramhall and Stainton agree that the band members are more than just support players and get what the keyboardist calls "a fair crack at the whip" during the shows.
"I'm doing solos in about four songs now, and Doyle gets a fair share," Stainton says. "(Clapton's) very good at that. He'll just sort of remain in the background playing rhythm guitar while everyone does their solos."
With the tour winding down this week (the Palace show is the next-to-last concert on the itinerary), Clapton has not yet revealed plans for his next recording project. He'll mostly be concentrating on his second Crossroads Guitar Festival, which takes place July 28 near Chicago and follows the 2004 event in Dallas to raise money for the Crossroads Centre for rehabilitation in Antigua, which Clapton founded in 1998
Bramhall and Trucks will be part of an all-star festival roster that also includes Jeff Beck, John Mayer, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and Robert Randolph, among others. Clapton is also hinting at the possibility of a reunion of another of his short-lived bands, Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood.
So there's clearly work to be done. But Clapton isn't entirely backing off the notion that any given tour or project could indeed be his last.
"I still think the idea of bringing things to a close is not a bad thing," he explains. "There's a kind of retiring inclination. But what it means is I want to go home, and I think that's what I've been saying about retirement all this time -- I just want to go home.
"But when I was saying that in the past I really didn't have much of a home to go to. I had to think about it in terms of real closure. NOw I can be a little more sane about the reality of what I need to be and what my life is composed of these days. It's easier to live and a more happy, more comfortable experience."
Eric Clapton and the Robert Cray Band perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 5th) at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $125, $85 and $55; tickets for the postponed Sept. 23 show will be honored. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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