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Pop Music Review : Clapton's Still A Tough Act To Precede

April 15, 1987|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

One of the most enduring motifs of Old West folklore is that of an aging gunslinger pitted against a brash young hotshot.

It's a rich scenario because it squares off age, experience and wisdom against youth, physical prowess and ambition. Change the six-shooters into six-stringers and the theme lives on today in rock 'n' roll.

So even though much of the media hoopla about Eric Clapton's latest concert tour centered on Phil Collins' guest stint as drummer for a dozen dates (including Monday's Pacific Amphitheatre show and Tuesday's Forum concert), the real drama stemmed from the choice of the opening act: the Robert Cray Band.

How would the veteran Clapton, whose solo albums in recent years have offered little more than tepid warm-up exercises, stand up to Cray, the hot young guitarist, singer and songwriter whose gritty "Strong Persuader" album was a consensus critical favorite last year?

Los Angeles Times Friday April 17, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 12 Column 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 11 words Type of Material: Correction
Guitarist Eric Clapton is 42. The wrong age was given in Wednesday's Calendar.

Fortunately, this guitar showdown had no losers--and the winners were Clapton, Cray and the 17,000-plus fans who packed the Pacific on Monday.

Whether motivated by the nimble, muscular 35-minute opening set by Cray and his four-man band, or by the presence of Collins and his formidable pop sensibilities, Clapton, 47, squeezed even more fire from his guitar and vocal cords than he did in an encouraging return-to-form show here in 1985.

The two-hour performance spanned his career, beginning auspiciously with a rendition of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" that was funkier than his signature version from his late-'60s Cream period. In that one song, Clapton acknowledged his debt to the blues masters while restating a 50-year-old blues tune in an accessible, contemporary framework.

Mixed in with '70s-vintage Clapton standards including "Layla," "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Let It Rain" were several songs from his 1986 album "August" that were uniformly punchier than on record. Much of the credit for that belongs to the impeccable backing Clapton got from Collins (who stayed out of the spotlight all evening except for a mercifully brief drum solo in "Same Old Blues"), bassist Nathan East and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes.

Indeed, the strength of his live performances--even of a mediocre pop song like "Hung Up on Your Love"--further underscored the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Clapton's recent career: In concert he remains a galvanizing guitarist and, within his limited vocal range, an expressive, soulful singer. So why do those qualities disappear when he steps into a recording studio?

Perhaps Phil Collins, who produced "August," will observe Clapton's extra fervor on stage from his seat behind the drums and figure out some way to help him recapture it in the sterile studio environs. Or better yet, just record his next batch of new songs live.

Cray, 33, set the stage for a face-to-face confrontation when he performed "Bad Influence," one of his own songs that Clapton recorded on "August." But that challenge went unmet when Clapton bypassed the song during his set.

It's precisely in the song-selection department where Cray currently has the edge on Clapton. Whether on his own songs or witty numbers like Dennis Walker's "I Guess I Showed Her," Cray emphasizes lyrics in the storytelling blues tradition--songs about real situations and emotions rather than simply two choruses and a catchy bridge--exactly what Clapton has been saddled with too often on recent albums.

Cray also showed more variety as a singer, from the elasticity of "Bad Influence" to the guttural growl of "Playing in the Dirt." For his guitar solos, Cray--like Clapton--stressed taste and economy over technical flash, and showed a keen understanding of the power of dynamics, at times dropping down to a whisper to give more impact when that whisper was raised to a scream.

Having been handed the unenviable task of opening for a rock legend, Cray drew an exceptionally strong ovation from the crowd, even though his brief set only started to demonstrate his range as a triple-threat talent.

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