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Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood at the Bowl: Fantasy becomes reality*

July 1, 2009 |  9:51 am


The stairway to classic-rock heaven extended straight into the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night as '60s British rock heroes Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood closed their all-too-quick 14-city, three-week U.S. tour with a nearly 2 ½-hour excursion through the music they created, individually and collectively, three and four decades ago.

Even without considering any of the music that either Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has made in the past 30 years, they had plenty to draw from, starting with a generous sampling of the material from their brief 1969 stint together in the super group Blind Faith, and dipping into Clapton’s subsequent tenure with Derek & the Dominos and Winwood’s with Traffic.

The highlight of the evening was their take on Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." At the end of the regular portion of the show, Clapton peeled off the opening lines of the song, one rock guitar deity saluting another. Then he marshaled his troops on a fearless extended trek through its dynamic intricacies, swelling and condensing, advancing then retreating, Winwood’s vocal injecting sinewy soulfulness in place of Hendrix’s gruff, sensual attack.

It fit in with their own songs that spoke to a time when the prime movers in pop music were more interested in musical and spiritual exploration than getting their songs placed in TV commercials or the closing credits of hit films.

Clapton, 64, and Winwood, 61, used their collaboration to revel in their shared love of American roots styles from blues to soul to R&B, Winwood’s whiskey-drenched voice as supple as ever, and paired sympathetically on several numbers by Clapton’s sandpapery vocal cords. “Lowdown,” “Tough Luck Blues” and “How Long” let Clapton flex the six-string prowess that generated those “Clapton is God” scrawls on subway walls all those years ago -- not just the blinding flurries of distortion-sheathed runs but gossamer-light pianissimo passages as well.

Clapton’s virtuosity was always in service of emotional expression; he never resorted to the meaningless displays of technique that so many guitar wizards born in his wake feel the need to exhibit.

Likewise, there was no booming introduction of a historic summit meeting of two rock legends. Clapton, Winwood and the band nonchalantly sauntered onstage a few minutes after the scheduled 8 p.m. start time, picked up their instruments and launched into Blind Faith’s “Had to Cry Today,” with its tone-setting opening line, “It is already written that today will be one to remember.”

Few in the packed house would disagree.

It was an evening predominantly about music, not personality, despite the storied musicians who commanded the spotlight. Cameras that projected video on four large screens to carry images to the far corners of the sold-out Bowl devoted far more time to close-ups of hands on guitar necks and piano and organ keys than on the famous weathered faces looking down on them.

Clapton worked his black Fender Stratocaster, except for during an acoustic segment, while Winwood shifted between electric guitar, acoustic piano and the signature Hammond organ he’s so closely identified with.

Rather than last year's tour that was billed as a Blind Faith reunion, Clapton and Winwood were accompanied this time by an ace touring band consisting of bassist Willie Weeks, keyboardist Chris Stainton and powerhouse drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. (familiar to boomer rock fans who have caught Paul McCartney on tour in recent years). Singers Michelle John and Sharon White consistently brought deeply felt support.

Winwood’s elegant and forlorn vocal on Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” spoke of a generation adrift, a plea for some kind of anchor that Clapton answered with the promise of spiritual salvation in his showpiece from the same group “Presence of the Lord.”

A stripped-down acoustic segment midway through gave Winwood the spotlight for a solo reading of Traffic’s poignant treatise on the price of rock 'n’ roll stardom, “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” for which he accompanied himself on piano. Clapton and members of the band returned for another unplugged run through of “Layla,” during which he and Winwood traded solos on their respective acoustic guitars.

A three-minute ovation followed “Voodoo Chile,” after which all returned for encore performances of “Cocaine,” the one number of the night that felt more dutiful than inspired, and Traffic’s soaring “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” that clarion call to one who can conjure the magic that only music can create.

On this night, that wish was no fantasy.

-- Randy Lewis 

Photo: Steve Winwood, left, and Eric Clapton. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

*This story has been updated. An earlier version said Clapton and Winwood were not responsible for the creation of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." Winwood played organ on the original recording.