Clapton at Market Square Arena

By Bob Bahr

I'd heard the story about graffiti in London proclaiming that "Clapton is God," but until last Sunday night, I'd never seen a miracle come from the gentleman bluesman. Then he pulled off two amazing feats: Eric Clapton played a well-paced, energetic two-hour concert of old blues standards with nary a "Layla" or "Tears in Heaven" in sight. Selling out an arena by playing none of your own songs?

More startling than that was that the show didn't need it. Clapton's love and respect for the blues rep was apparent and infectious. His solo hits and the musical milestones from his past bands stayed stowed in the trunk. Cream? I take my coffee black. Bonnie & Delaney? Gone and largely forgotten. The Yardbirds? Flew the coop. Blind Faith?

Now that's something the 15,000 people in Indianapolis' Market Square Arena had plenty of. Their faith was in this guru of baby-boomer integrity rock, a man who played the blues before he lived them, and now sings them with the wistfulness of a victim and the ferocity of a survivor. Clapton's voice has frayed and weathered like an old leather bomber jacket, giving gruff heft to this blues growl. He was in fine voice last Sunday.

A virulent strand of perfectionism runs through Clapton, a trait that was equally noticeable in his dirty slide-guitar playing and his clean, precise flurries, which boiled by like a bebop line. Dressed in a casual, immaculate outfit of white T and white pants, Clapton exuded restraint from the small area of the stage that he prowled.

The present tour is in support of his traditional blues album From the Cradle, and is likewise stubbornly authentic, judging by this show. Clapton's first extended guitar solo didn't come until nearly an hour into his show and his first four songs were largely "unplugged," with roadhouse piano and washboard offering more exotic sounds to accompany hollow-body and acoustic guitars and bass. For "44 Blues," a second percussionist (Kenny Aronoff, perhaps?) banged a bass drum with a mallet in time with the drummer's kick drum, while Robert Johnson's "Malted Milk" was stripped down to just Clapton and a rhythm guitarist.

Clapton took pains before each song to announce the composer or the person who made the tune famous. Among the blues players recognized by Clapton were Johnson, Muddy Waters ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "Standin' 'Round Crying"), Leroy Carr ("How Long, How Long Blues") Jimmy Rogers ("Blues All Day Long"), Elmore James ("It Hurts Me Too"), Eddie Boyd ("Third Degree"), Ray Charles ("Sinner's Prayer"), and Freddie King ("Someday After a While"). The only thing approaching a hit was Clapton's shuffling version of Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign," which he recorded with Cream once upon a time, and a bizarre, stuttering, New Orleans-march revision of the classic Johnson cut "Crossroads," which was utterly bereft of that song's classic guitar riff. If anyone came to hear Clapton's rock catalog, they went home disappointed.

Judging by the warm reaction, few people did. With a median age well above 30, Clapton's fans have great patience for their deity. On this tour, the 50-year-old guitarist is relaxing with some of his favorite old blues tunes, and Clapton's audience seems more than willing to indulge him. If he is a god, then he certainly has the leeway to do any dang thing he wants. As if to answer any remaining questions, he finished the show with an imposing "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

Jimmie Vaughan opened the show with a half-hour set, but a 90-minute traffic jam on I-65 about 45 miles outside of Indy left this reviewer with just a few lingering chords and a cheerful "Thank you" from the Texas guitarist.