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Published: 2004/07/16
by Ryan Donovan

Eric Clapton/ Robert Ranolph & The Family Band, Tweeter Center, Mansfield, MA- 7/4

It was July 4th at the Tweeter Center, and the seats were surprisingly empty for Eric Clapton's second of two nights at the venue formerly known as Great Woods. Perhaps in an effort to counteract the lagging ticket sales, the Tweeter Center was offering fireworks after both shows, but many of the open-air seats still were conspicuously without occupants. Nontheless, Clapton's band, along with opening act Robert Randolph and the Family Band, delivered enthusiastic and memorable sets to the delight of those who attended.

Randolph was the perfect opening act for Clapton. A young guitar prodigy much like the headliner was almost forty years ago in the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Randolph had the crowd captivated from the first dramatic note that rang forcefully out of his pedal steel guitar. Mixing concert staples like "The March," "Pressing My Way," and "I Don't Know What You Come To Do" all of which appear on his 2002 release Live at the Wetlands with funkier workouts from last year’s Unclassified, the band was dynamic and fun, and the pedal steel keyboard interplay was especially good. The last number found the band members switching instruments and showing that their talents were not limited to the mastery of a mere one musical device. The classic-rock oriented crowd seemed to enjoy Randolph's cover of "Purple Haze" the most, but they were appreciative of the enthusiastic performance as a whole. Randolph walked off to a loud standing ovation.

Clapton was next. Joined onstage most notably by guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and keyboardist Billy Preston, they opened with a lackluster reading of "Let it Rain." It wasn't bad, but there was very little energy in it, particularly compared to Robert Randolph's frenetic pace. Next was "Hoochie Coochie Man," which was solid, if unexceptional. If you've heard any one of his performances of this song from the last ten years, then you know what this one sounded like. Thankfully, things picked up after a few songs, and the band really started to fire on all cylinders with a clever version of "I Shot the Sheriff." The instrumental introduction to the song found Clapton slowly building on a few subtle, reggae-tinged guitar lines, and after the standard verses and choruses, it culminated in a series of blistering, yet controlled, solos that breathed new life into the generally mellow tune.

Earlier in the year Clapton paid tribute to his hero, Robert Johnson, with Me and Mr. Johnson, a collection of new arrangements of the delta blues giant’s songs. The album is a little low on intensity for covers of such a passionate performer, but it is nonetheless refreshing to hear Clapton immersing himself in the blues once again. On this night (and presumably every other night the reported setlists for this tour have been absolutely identical) Clapton and company sat down for a mini-set of Robert Johnson songs that faired much better than they do on record. Slowhand alternated between acoustic and electric guitars, and he was helped considerably by some fine solo work by Bramhall on guitar and pianist Chris Stainton. "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Kind Hearted Woman," came off exceptionally well, but even better were "Milkcow’s Calf Blues" and "If I Had Possession over Judgment Day." The latter two were given hard-rocking treatments, with "Milkcow" benefiting from a riff reminiscent of Clapton’s "Crossroads" interpretation, while "Possession" was essentially an electrified version of the "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" that appeared on his Unplugged album.

The highlight of the night came directly after the blues segment. Breaking out the wah wah pedal for the first time, Clapton resurrected the Derek and the Dominos rocker, "Got to Get Better in a Little While." He was absolutely amazing on this marathon performance as he unleashed a barrage of awe-inspiring guitar solos that would finally appear to have reached a climax, only to go on to even greater heights. This was not the Eric Clapton responsible for a decade's worth of bland pop albums in the 1980's, nor was it the man who graced adult contemporary radio in the 1990's, with the occasional blues interlude. This was the Eric Clapton that led Cream and Derek and the Dominos as one of the greatest blues-rock guitarists to ever live.

Clapton remained solid for the rest of the night, and the set was only hampered by the predictability of the setlist. "Layla," "Cocaine," "Wonderful Tonight," and "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," appeared one after the other, and while the actual playing was superb, it was disappointing that there were so few surprises, particularly since the majority of these songs were captured with the same band on 2002's One More Car, One More Rider.

For an encore, "Sunshine of Your Love" was chosen, and Randolph came out and joined the band in mid-song. Clapton and Randolph traded impressive licks as the song built to a crescendo, with the combination of the musicians and the screaming crowd making for a near-deafening sound. It was the second peak of the night, edged out slightly by "Got To Get Better in a Little While," but still a remarkable display of talent. Randolph stayed onstage for a "Got My Mojo Workin'" that felt like an afterthought following the colossal "Sunshine," but it did allow for more phenomenal guitar playing (and a new blues cover) that left the audience pleading to no avail for a second encore.

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