At this point Eric Clapton doesn't have a thing to prove to anyone.
His reputation as a guitar god was sealed 40 years ago. He has all the money and respect in the world. He has a full head of rock star hair for his Rolling Stone cover photo. On top of that, now he even has his own custom T-Mobile Fender cellphone.
So did he phone it in last night at the sold-out Mellon Arena?
It seemed like it at first when he hit the stage crawling through "Goin' Down Slow," a sluggish opener that offered nothing more exciting than what you'd get at the corner bar. It was followed by one of his most epic blues burners, "Key to the Highway," toned down to more of a flicker, with a brief, disinterested solo.
Then came signs of life, with the female backup singers spiking the great melody on "Tell the Truth," the second straight cut from "Layla." It wasn't until the grinding "Old Love," a little known song, that we got the first burst of passion from Mr. Clapton, one of those trademark solos with the long stabbing note and then a fast flurry at the bottom of the neck.
Goin' Down Slow
Key to the Highway
Tell the Truth
I Shot the Sheriff
Nobody Knows You When You're Down Out
Running on Faith
Little Queen of Spades
Before You Accuse Me
I Can See for Miles
The Real Me
Days of Light
Give Me a Stone
Mannish Boy/My Generation/Young Man's Blues
He carried that into a punched-up "I Shot the Sheriff," with its jarring scrapes and then a long closing jam, performed effortlessly, cleanly and precisely. The tone was gorgeous as usual -- no argument there -- and the only pedal he seemed to need was a little distortion. If you like your guitar heroes messy, or want to high-five your friend after a shredding solo, he's not the guy.
As for the vocals, there was no struggle there, as he hasn't exactly worn them thin with over-use (it was his first show here in more than 10 years). His gruff voice was a bold accompaniment to his acoustic playing on a middle section of "Driftin' Blues," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and "Running on Faith."
What Mr. Clapton doesn't do there that some might is sit down and tell a story. He said almost nothing to the fans and projected less personality than Bob Dylan. In the trade, I guess that's called "letting the music do the talking."
It talked on "Badge," with that stunning late riff, and on "Little Queen of Spades," a round-robin jam that showed off his keyboard players before coming back around to one of his meaner solos.
"Wonderful Tonight" was what it was -- a slow dance that either put you to sleep or made you sentimental about some wedding. He picked up the pace again with power-chord classic "Cocaine," and signed off with a "Crossroads" a few shades lighter than Cream.
So while we got the "Assorted Love Songs," what we didn't get, oddly, was "Layla," his most beloved song. It may have added that certain "blow-you-away" factor that was missing, may even have made this Clapton concert one to phone home about.
Opening the show, Roger Daltrey noted brightly that this was "one-up from a toilet break at a football match."
And it was for us, too.
Rumors of Mr. Daltrey's vocal demise, based on the Super Bowl halftime, were greatly exaggerated. On the first night of the new tour with his solo band, The Who singer sounded 20 years younger than he did in Miami.
He kicked it off forcefully with "I Can See for Miles" and "The Real Me," which turned out to be kind of a tease. This wasn't a Who tribute set with Pete Townshend's little brother Simon subbing in.
The meat of his set was drawn from other parts of his career ---with the rough and tumble "Days of Light," the bluesy "Freedom Ride" and Elvis tribute "Real Good Looking Boy." It built up to a hard blues medley of "Mannish Boy," a slow-chugging "My Generation" and then a walloping "Young Man's Blues" that allowed lead guitarist Frank Simes to get his licks in.
Mr. Daltrey didn't have the benefit of flashy lighting, a rowdy crowd or even room to swing his mike. He also complained about new in-ear monitors. But he made the best of all that, with lots of muscle left in his pipes. It's a lucky concert crowd that gets "Baba O'Riley" from the opening act -- with the original guy who sang it!
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-263-2576. First Published February 26, 2010 5:15 AM