Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood
Live From Madison Square Garden

Fall 2007, word leaked out that Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood would play some concerts at the Madison Square Garden. In hindsight, it's easy to consider Winwood's participation to the second edition of the Crossroads Guitar Festival, where he also played a few songs from the Blind Faith repertoire in a joint performance with Clapton (some excerpts being featured on this set's second DVD-V), as a kind of "dress rehearsal" - or, maybe, a kind of "general compatibility check" - for the dates a the Garden and all that logically followed.

For reasons that should be very clear to those who are familiar with "the history of rock", before one could clearly spell the words "Blind Faith", people were already running to get tickets, which were decidedly on the affordable side: if my memory works, a lot were priced at $55, with uncomfortable seats added at the very last moment going for a very reasonable $179. Those who attended - I've heard from people who attended all the (three) shows from the front seats - talked about a fine experience, that would only prove inferior to the "peaks" the artists are said to have reached during their U.S. Summer tour, 2009.

A symbolic coincidence?, Blind Faith's U.S. 1969 tour started at the Madison Square Garden. The fact that things immediately took a wrong turn, and that after the end of the tour (August, 24th, Hawaii), Clapton and Winwood were not on speaking terms for a long time, makes it possible to consider that tour as an "unfinished business" which deserved a better "closure".

(Talking about the famous Eric Clapton 1973 Rainbow Concert in his autobiography published a few years ago, Who I Am, Pete Townshend writes that he had to vigorously call Winwood in order to have him attend the concert rehearsals, Hammond included. While in the long interview that appears on this DVD-V, Clapton himself admits that his jumping off the Blind Faith ship was definitely not a noble gesture.)

It's true that a lot of things have changed since then - think about it: who would agree today to going onstage in front of 20.000 people who expect you to work wonders when both your repertoire and P.A. are definitely not up to it? (and it's only the first date of the tour!) - so there's a lot to enjoy here: perfect amps, clean sound, well-tuned guitars.

As it's to be expected, there are a lot of close-ups of fingers and picks, something that only a fool would regards as "not really part of music", or "a pass-time for the few", or "too much attention paid to self-indulgent solos". This is music: the inclination of the strings at the nut (just notice the perfect way the E string on Willie Weeks' Fender Precision is placed over the slot and goes to the machine head), or the clean way the guitar strings pass through the nut, the micro-adjustments on the instrument's volume and tone controls, the ever-changing way the pick hits the strings - instant equalization! Those who have never seen a Hammond organ and its "drawbars" will learn a lot just watching some fine parts performed by Winwood.

The album comprises of performances from February 25, 26, and 28, 2008. The DVD-V was released on May 19, 2009, just like its double CD counterpart.

The line-up: Ian Thomas on drums, Willie Weeks on bass, and Chris Stainton on keyboards. Thomas is a fine "team player", quite solid. Willie Weeks needs no real introduction (just check his bass parts on Winwood's first solo album from 1977). I'm pretty sure most readers already know Stainton's hands: they appear in close-up in the left portion of the screen in the Woodstock movie, at the start of Joe Cocker's performance of The Beatles' With A Little Help From My Friends.

Enormous space, essential sound. Clapton is on guitar, Winwood on guitar, Hammond, and grand piano. Stainton plays a Hammond and two synths: one sounding like a "thin" piano, the other working as a substitute for reeds, flutes, and Mellotron, and as a sort of quasi Mini-moog (all done with restraint and good taste, as I'll argue when discussing the individual songs).

My mental image of Blind Faith - what I see as I listen to the music - is a b&w picture from the 60s. So I had a lot of trouble combining that picture with a lot of what came later. Of the very famous musicians, who could easily release two "Best of" called "The Versace Years" and "The Armani Years"? Winwood's case is stranger still. A "musicians' musician", and somebody who's never been a natural onstage, it was weird to see him dancing, having at last accepted the role of the entertainer. Life is complicated - born in Birmingham, Winwood learned to swim at the age of 40, in the United States.

Clapton (1945) was already a celebrity by the time he played with the Yardbirds. Winwood (1948), already a "prodigy" with the Spencer Davis Group, became a familiar voice all over the world thanks to such massive hits as Gimme Some Lovin' and I'm A Man. Their first official playing together - but Winwood says that Clapton acted as a sort of "older brother" at the time he first came to London - are those sessions released under the name Powerhouse on the album What's Shaking, in March '66. Then, it was Traffic time for Winwood, and Cream time for Clapton.

Those long interviews featured on the second DVD-V show Clapton and Winwood as very different individuals. Winwood looks like somebody who would prefer to be elsewhere, but has learned that such things are part of his chosen occupation. Sometimes a rotatory gesture of his right arm appears to imply that certain things can't be discussed in brief. (Watch his posture onstage: while playing a guitar solo, Winwood bends forward; quite often he looks at the guitar fretboard.) For somebody who was born in the U.K., Clapton moves both arms in the air quite a lot. What came before has made him a fine talker, quite assured, as a result of discipline and self-examination. Well-mannered and never vague, but it's clear who's really conducting the interview, and firmly traces the confines of what is off-limits.

(A personal observation: Clapton's generosity when featuring Winwood in the set, Winwood really coming to the fore during the concert's anthemic ending. I'm sure readers will have a great time investigating the way they look at each other, my favourite episode being the way Clapton looks at Winwood at the end of After Midnight.)

Both leaders chose songs from each other's repertory. From what I can tell, I'd say the key of the songs - the "ID card" of the music, so to speak - is the same as the originals.

On DVD-V 2:

The Road To Madison Square Garden is a long documentary (more than half an hour) where Clapton and Winwood talk about their times and career. Nice for all, this is really indispensable viewing for those who don't know much. Lotsa pictures, also a few live moments of both Traffic and Cream.

Rambling On My Mind comes straight from the soundcheck, solo Clapton playing a Martin acoustic.

Low Down is the J.J. Cale song, performed con brio.

Kind Hearted Woman features solo Clapton playing the Martin, a fine performance.

Crossroads is quite far from the amphetamine-fuelled version released by Cream on Wheels Of Fire. This is a shuffle mid-tempo, with a fine Clapton, Winwood on both vocals and piano, on which he has a solo with fine backing from Stainton's Hammond.

The concert proper - more than two hours long - appears on the first DVD-V.

Had To Cry Today originally opened Blind Faith's album, and so is the logical opener here. Not really perfect on Winwood's part, but one has to take into account the moment, the event, and an "instrument" that's not warmed up yet. Fine solos, Stainton performs a fine backing on organ, and there's an exciting finale for two guitars, quite psychedelic-sounding, not too far from the original.

Them Changes is the - quite famous, I'd say - Buddy Miles original. As those things sometimes go, Miles died on that same day, so this performance works as an involuntary post-mortem homage. The performance has a fantastic drive, Winwood is great on vocals, there are fine synth winds by Stainton, and a great Clapton solo.

Forever Man is the smash Clapton had stopped performing, a Winwood choice. Great Hammond, well sung by both, with a convincing guitar solo.

Sleeping In The Ground is the blues song that Blind Faith recorded but didn't put on the original LP (it has been made available as a bonus). Mid-tempo, fine groove, Winwood on vocals and piano, nice Clapton.

Presence Of The Lord was the only song penned by Clapton on the Blind Faith album, now a de facto standard. Here it's performed in a style that's more similar to The Band, maybe closer to the composer's original intention. Winwood sits on organ, Stainton on "piano", first verse sung by Clapton, second verse by Winwood - just like the record! - then it's solo time, featuring the wha-wha and a solo ending that closely reminds one of the original.

Glad is definitely a surprise here, Winwood on piano, Stainton on organ, a not-too-bad version of the Traffic classic. The real surprise here is Clapton's solo, in Santana style!

Well All Right is the cover featured on the Bind Faith album. Fine groove, fine vocals, Winwood on piano, here the surprise is Stainton playing a quasi Mini-moog solo with pitch-bend, a lot better than my description would make one imagine.

Double Trouble is Clapton's homage to Otis Rush, but this is a cover one could consider as acting as a multiple homage. Winwood on organ, Stainton on "piano", when it comes to "feel" this is one of the concert's high points, with a really great Clapton solo, organ playing "parallel", and a very moving, fade-out, ending.

Pearly Queen is the classic Traffic song, with many surprises. Winwood is on vocals and organ - sounding just like the original - while Clapton performs parts and solos that Winwood overdubbed in the studio for the album version. The real surprise comes at the end, when one would expect a "cut" ending. Out of the blue, a "psychedelic" move, with "cosmic" organ, "Arabic-sounding" guitar, that for a moment reminds one of Phish!

Tell The Truth takes us back to those (artistically) happy times of Layla and Derek And The Dominoes. Winwood on organ, Stainton on "barrelhouse" "piano", Clapton plays two solos, with the closing one as one of his best here.

No Face, No Name, No Number is the classic Traffic tune, one of the hardest to sing in their repertory. Clapton plays a chorus arpeggio, while Winwood appears having a hard time singing the "rubato" quasi-solo part. A miracle - a light snare drum, the synth acting as an orchestral Mellotron - when Winwood sings "The scenery is all the same to me/Nothing has changed, or faded" everything is perfect, a real handkerchief moment for a melody sounding halfway between a Gregorian and an Arabic chant.

After Midnight is its usual vivacious self, as its composer J.J. Cale intended. This was the first solo hit for Clapton (I remember reading that when Cale listened to his song performed by Clapton on the radio, he immediately crossed the street and bought himself a Chevrolet; all this happening in those days before streaming was invented, of course!).

Split Decision is the only Winwood song from the 80s performed here. Jointly composed with Joe Walsh, appearing on Winwood's hit album Back In The High Life, with just a few modifications here it gets a much "darker" mood than the original. The group appears to be quite involved in getting the rhythmic figure just right, while Winwood looks a lot more "in charge" than when performing his "oldies". There is more sense of "risk" here, and it's very rewarding.

Rambling On My Mind features Clapton on the Martin acoustic, back to his roots with the Robert Johnson classic.

Georgia On My Mind is Winwood's back to the roots moment: the Hoagy Carmichael classic, later a classic as performed by Ray Charles, was a feature for "Stevie" Winwood when he was 15. A quite moving performance, in a way also a Hammond lesson.

Little Wing is the Jimi Hendrix song that Clapton recorded on the Dominoes album as a homage while Hendrix was still alive. Here we have a fine guitar arpeggio that closely resembles the original, then the Hammond, it's sung by both Clapton and Winwood, another concert highlight.

Voodoo Chile is the long Jimi Hendrix song that originally appeared on his album Electric Ladyland. The recording - something like a "scored improvisation" - featured Mitch Mitchell on drums, Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane on bass, and Steve Winwood at the Hammond organ. Like the original, the version featured here is quite long, and doesn't ask for a moment-by-moment description. I'll only say that here Clapton plays well above his usual high standard, and that at the end Winwood - who usually never moves that much - appears like he's playing an organ that's about to catch fire. An absolutely essential performance.

Can't Find My Way Home brings it all back to the ground. Winwood plays a semi-acoustic Fender Telecaster while Stainton sits on organ. This is a take that sounds closer to The Band then to the "English" mood of the very fine original version featured on the Blind Faith album. Excellent guitar performances by all, while Winwood - as it happens quite often in the concert, especially when he's shot from the right in a thoughtful mood - closely resembles Jack Bruce!

Dear Mr. Fantasy is the fine, clear conclusion, with Stainton at the organ, Clapton and Winwood both taking fine solos, that funny part at the end, and an ending that sounds like a tip of the hat to Beck's Bolero.

Cocaine is the encore, with great solos by Clapton, Winwood, and Stainton on "piano".

What's the moral of this story? Years ago I happened to read an interview with Paul Bley where he said that Sun Ra could play "cakewalks", a piano style he had read about but had never been able to hear before. (Kinda subtle, uh?)

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2017 | Nov. 2, 2017