AUBURN HILLS -- Eric Clapton had the blues Thursday night at the Palace. But that wasn't necessarily a good thing -- at least not for the entire show.
On the next-to-last show of a concert tour that began last year, Clapton -- making up September 23 date postponed due to illness -- didn't exactly phone in the 16-song, nearly two-hour show, but he didn't seem fully engaged. There were quite a few points where the British rock legend and his seven-piece band seemed to be rushing to finish, and rote versions of favorites such as "Wonderful Tonight," "Layla" and "Cocaine" sounded more obligatory than inspired.
That said, Clapton's seasoned chops insure that even a diminished performance plays at a level higher than some artists' 110 percent. His instinct for tasteful guitar solos was fully intact on Thursday, and as an ensemble leader he was generous -- perhaps to a fault -- as he frequently passed the musical ball to his cohorts, particularly excellent second guitarist Doyle Bramhall II.
The show did get off to a fiery start, with Clapton, dressed in a short-sleeve black shirt and jeans, playing the opening riffs to "Tell the Truth" -- part of a five-song opening burst of seldom-played Derek & the Dominos material from the seminal 1970 album "Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs." A long 'n' lusty romp through "Got to Get Better in a Little While" and a gorgeous rendering of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" were particular highlights, and aficionados, at least, had ever reason to expect something truly special for the rest of the evening.
Instead it settled into the good-not-great category, with a blues-dominated repertoire that gave Clapton plenty of room to show off what some consider to be divinely inspired talents but which took advantage of only on occasion. A four-song acoustic sit-down set featured a solo version of Charles Brown's "Driftin' " and a soulful take of Clapton's own "Running on Faith." "Motherless Children" sprinted at Indy car speed, while Robert Johnson's "Little Queen of Spades" was extended to accommodate solos by Clapton, Bramhall and keyboardists Chris Stainton and Tim Carmon. And the swinging arrangement of "Further On Up the Road" breathed some welcome life into a song that's become something of a warhorse in Clapton's catalog.
The show certainly ended on a high note, as Clapton -- who made no mention of the show's postponement -- traded vocals and solos with opening act Robert on the Cream version of Johnson's "Crossroads." It was a fine cap on what was an enjoyable show but not up to the highest standards Clapton has previously established.
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