Review: Eric Clapton at Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh, PA

Eric Clapton at Bridgestone

(Photo: Clapton at an earlier tour stop in Nashville)

Eric Clapton is above judgment.  How do you measure a guitar player who is widely recognized as the greatest of all time. Once even  as “God.”

Answer: against himself. Upon first glance at a setlist that features seven cover songs and a slew of acoustic numbers, you may initially prepare yourself for one of Slowhand’s off nights. It turns out that you would have been sorely mistaken. After opening on his Martin acoustic with the touching “Hello Old Friend” and “My Father’s Eyes,” the 68 year-old legend broke out the Strat and put on an incredible bluesy  shedding session for the meat of the 19-song set.  Interspersed throughout were numbers from Cream,  Derek and the Dominos and four Robert Johnson covers. “Gotta Get Over” was one of the few songs that made the cut from the new album Old Sock.

Journeyman keyboardist Paul Carrack, of Squeeze and Ace fame, sang each of his former bands’ biggest hits, “Tempted” and “How Long.” It was a welcome, familiar trip back to the ’80s. In some cities, Clapton has not performed “Layla” at all and after seeing it performed acoustic, it would not have been missed.  Even though he blew up the arena with killer solos on “Badge,” “Stones in My Passway” and of course, “Cocaine,”the electric intro to “Layla” is as instantly recognizable as “All Along The Watchtower.” Stripping it down is too glaring a diversion from such an energetic set.  Adding to the fury throughout were backup singers Sharon White and Michelle John’s gospel choir pipes. The unsurprisingly talented band flexed its muscle on the cover of Albert Collins’ “Black Cat Bone.” The high decibel lap steel work of Greg Leisz was mesmerizing. Clapton proved he had no trouble sharing the spotlight as he stepped into the background several times and let guitarist Doyle Bramhall II take the lead.

At one point, Clapton said endearingly, “This is the last stop on our little tour and it’s sure nice that it was here.” Pittsburgh hadn’t seen him since 2010 in the iconic Mellon Arena. Is Clapton the greatest guitar player of all time? That’s a matter of personal taste. Is he one of the best, living or dead? That statement is inarguable.

The Wallflowers, led by the devilishly charismatic Jakob Dylan, opened with an impressive power packed set of their own.  After taking the standing crowd back to the ’90s with “One Headlight” and “Sixth Avenue Heartache,” they broke out  the highlight from their latest album, “Love is a Country.”  Guitarist Stuart Mathis scorched every number before Clapton joined them for a cover of “The Weight” right before intermission.