Clapton's songs match guitar work

May 11, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Landover -- Most rock fans think of Eric Clapton as a guitar hero -- and rightly so. Having been celebrated for his fleet-fingered solos ever since his days as a Yardbird (when "Clapton Is God" was familiar graffiti in London's club district), he has built an unparalleled body of work, inspiring a generation of apostles and imitators.

But playing guitar isn't the only thing Clapton does well. In fact, after hearing him before a capacity crowd at the Capital Centre last night, it's tempting to suggest that he is a singer/songwriter first, and a soloist second.

It was not as if his playing left anything to be desired, mind. Far from it. His solos were as incendiary as ever, and more than a few fans spent the evening with their eyes glued to the Capital Centre's overhead TV screens, dutifully following their hero's every move on the fretboard.

Good as those solos were, though, Clapton never let them become the focus of his performance. Rather, he left the emphasis where it belonged -- on the songs.

It was a wise move, and not simply because even the best improvisations need some context to have impact.

Clapton, in his more than 25 years of record-making, has assembled quite a songbook. But it doesn't really sink in how great a legacy that is until you've heard him spend 2 1/2 hours playing hit after hit after hit, with none of them sounding the least bit tired.

"Layla," for instance, is the sort of chestnut that classic rock radio has virtually played to death, yet it was hard to hear him reprise the piece Sunday and not be moved.

Obviously, some of that stems from the strength of the song itself, but Clapton never let his performance rest on the enthusiasm of his fans; he poured his heart into his playing, emphasizing both the majestic sweep of its melodies and the passionate intensity of its lyrics.

Taken together, the effect was stunning.

And so it went throughout the evening. It hardly mattered how old or new the material was; Clapton and band burned just as brightly on recent work like "She's Waiting" or "Tears in Heaven" as they did on such classics as "Badge" or "Crossroads."

Of course, it hardly hurt that his current group is perhaps the strongest Clapton has taken on the road in years, with bassist Nathan East, keyboardist Chuck Leavell, and second guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low each contributing to the evening's success.

But the bottom line was the material, and to that end, Clapton's achievement seemed far more heroic than any guitar solo.

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