They’re the kind of bands that lazy summer evenings on the lawn are made for. Plus, they happen to be the bread-and-butter of outdoor amphitheaters starved for new headliners who can bring out massive crowds from June to September. And this summer I decided I was going to go see as many as I could, because, well, they’re not getting any younger and life’s to short to have regrets, right?
Which is why I found myself standing next to my father-in-law at a nearly sold-out Riverbend Amphitheater in Cincinnati, Ohio, on a perfect Wednesday night (June 30) for a show by guitar god Eric Clapton and Who singer Roger Daltrey, one of only three (he informed me, because he does his homework) shows the two charter Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legends would be playing together this summer.
I couldn’t have picked a better show partner, since he has seen Clapton five or six times and the Who at least twice, and I’m not just talking the later-day versions, either.
I’ve actually seen the Who — back on their third or fourth unretirement tours back in the ’90s — but I’d never seen Clapton. And though I’ve never been a superfan, he is Slow Hand, so you have to check that one off the list.
Daltrey came out first, immediately busting into a trio of Who classics (“I Can See For Miles,” “The Real Me” and “Behind Blue Eyes”) backed by a muscular five-piece band that gave a bit of a rougher edge to the FM radio staples without messing with the arrangements too much. Daltrey would probably be the first to admit he’s lost a bit of the top edge of his range, but the grittiness that replaced it was perfect for a dirty blues cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou,” which he dedicated to victims of the BP oil spill.
Though he didn’t have lifelong foil Pete Townshend with him, Daltrey had the next best thing in the Who guitarist’s younger brother Simon, who filled in (with eerily Pete-like vocals) on a cover a tune the singer said the Who had never performed live, the rousing “Going Mobile.”
Daltrey busted out the classic microphone swings for “Who Are You,” which the band played in a kind of spare, deconstructed way that aired it out a bit, and by the time he brought it home almost 50 minutes later with “Baba O’Riley,” the crowd went bananas from the first, instantly recognizable keyboard notes until the messy, controlled-chaos ending.
If Daltrey was all about power and energy, Clapton lived up to his stage nickname. The 65-year-old legend strolled out unassumingly in baggy jeans and black button-down short-sleeved shirt for 90 minutes of expertly-crafted blues that impressed if only because he made the intricate seem effortless.
Clapton’s not a wailer, a shouter or a flashy slasher. I knew that from years of watching him on TV. But his ease and mastery of his instrument in concert is something to behold. For one thing, as far as I could tell, Clapton never once changed out his powder blue ax, nor did he fuss around tuning it between songs. From “Key to the Highway” to “Tell the Truth” and through the set-closing, face-melting encore “Crossroads,” he plucked away at the strings of that guitar, pulling out some Delta blues here, a bit of classical guitar magic there and plenty of fat rock riffs in between.
Aided by two soul mama backup singers, a bassist, master session drummer Steve Gadd and a pair of excellent keyboardist, Clapton took it down mid-show for an acoustic set that featured a swinging, mellow “Layla” and the walking blues of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
His extended reggae skanking cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” was spot-on, with the backups singers howling away alongside his offhand island-inflected sing-talking. “Before You Accuse Me” turned into a barrelhouse blues clinic, with Clapton gladly ceding the stage to his keyboardists, who engaged in a Hammond vs. piano showdown that brought whoops from the crowd. It was a bit surreal to hear nearly 20,000 people shout out the chorus to the song “Cocaine” at a man who has had his fair share of struggles with the powder, but there was something joyful about that irony (and the smoking licks that accompanied it) that you just don’t get at a John Mayer gig.
Well, one show down, a summer’s worth to go. Watch out Santana, Steve Winwood, Kiss, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty and Aerosmith. You’re next.