Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood - Live at Madison Square Garden

  Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood
  Live at Madison Square Garden

  3.5 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Blind Faith, one of rock's earliest and most heralded supergroups, is often held up as a prime example of what not to do when you get four famous artists together to make music. The principals had impressive resumes - vocalist/keyboard player/guitarist Steve Winwood came to prominence as a 14 year-old hit maker with The Spencer Davis Group before forming the legendary art rock band Traffic (my favorite group, by the way) with drummer/vocalist Jim Capaldi, sax/flute/keyboardist Chris Wood, (and occasionally guitarist Dave Mason). Eric Clapton had plied his trade as a blues guitarist with the Yardbirds and John Mayall before he formed Cream with power vocalist/bassist Jack Bruce and psycho drummer Ginger Baker. Baker (who Clapton didn't want in Blind Faith because of his heavy heroin habit and combative disposition), had rattled the traps for British blues pioneer Graham Bond. Bassist Rick Grech was the least familiar name in Blind Faith, but he'd received rave reviews for his work with blues/folk rockers the Family, and would later heighten his profile playing with Traffic and KGB. Despite their pedigrees, Blind Faith was finished within a year; Clapton because was disillusioned with the hype surrounding the group and Winwood was ready to go solo.

Blind Faith left behind a six-song LP that became a rock cult classic. Forty years and just as many albums later, the group's principals, Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton, joined together for a concert tour. The DVD of their stop over at Madison Square Garden fulfils the promise of the group's only album. Although Winwood and Clapton never dubbed the tour a Blind Faith reunion, you can bet Ginger Baker (who wasn't invited) seethed while concert promoters cashed in on the group's rep while he was gathering dust in South Africa. Rick Grech had a better excuse for not signing on - he'd died in 1990.

To flesh out their Blind Faith tribute set, Winwood and Clapton raided their own massive back catalogues, but they did so with a twist -- Clapton chose Winwood's songs and vice versa. As a result, a few unexpected performances pop up. The list is constructed so one of the best singers in the world (Winwood) handles most of the vocals and an acclaimed guitarist (Clapton) gets to do what he does best. Since Blind Faith only released half a dozen songs, its surprising Winwood and Clapton omitted one of the group's best -- "Sea of Joy." Maybe Winwood couldn't hit the song's herniated high notes anymore, or Clapton felt there was no point in doing it without Grech's gypsy wind violin solo.
Unlike Clapton's welcome but stiff reunion with Cream, Winwood and Clapton actually smile at each other and seem to genuinely enjoy playing together an they're supported by a trio of seasoned pros. The back up musicians include Joe Cocker/Spooky Tooth keyboard specialist Chris Stainton, Rolling Stone's bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Ian Thomas, who's sat in with Paul McCartney  The band is on key, on time and on the money.

As a singer, I'll admit I don't appreciate the nuances of Clapton's search for string nirvana through twelve minute solos, but I will say Slowhand's passages on the DVD have a seamless, soothing tone and he never hits a coarse or bad note. Air guitarists and aspiring axe men will drool over Slowhand's skill - perhaps he just makes it look too easy for me to appreciate him more. For me, the guy to watch is the more versatile and vocal Steve Winwood. His voice still has the power and beauty it had 40 years ago, and there are few keyboard players who can match his ability to improvise. Even Stainton, who's worked with The Who, Bryan Ferry, Ian Hunter and Jim Capaldi, takes a back seat to Steve (and by back seat, I mean he's barely visible over Clapton's right hand shoulder most of the time). Stainton doesn't stand out (he's not supposed to), but he's steady; a building block for the band's sound, working seamlessly alongside Weeks and Thomas.

The show opens with Blind Faith's "Had to Cry Today." What you'll notice straight away is Winwood is no slouch on guitar. Watch him trade solos with Clapton - there aren't many musicians brave enough or good enough to saddle up to Slowhand. The two connect as if they've been together for 30 years instead of having been separated that long.
In a voice over, Clapton relates that he and Winwood wanted to do a tribute to drummer Buddy Miles, who was on his death bed. They picked his best known tune, "Them Changes," which is propelled by Chris Stainton's spot on imitation of a Stax horn section on keyboard. Clapton displays some righteous R & B chops and you'll love the way Winwood revisits the soulful singing style he used in his Spencer Davis days. Buddy got to hear the first night's performance over a cell phone before he passed away. R.I.P., Buddy.

It's amazing how Winwood still sings with such ease, and he can still tickle the ivories as if the keys are an extension of his soul. Think it's easy? He has his back to the band while playing Blind Faith's arrangement of Buddy Holly's "Well All Right," proving he's one of the most intuitive musicians on the planet - a skill he learned while jamming with the unpredictable Chris Wood in Traffic.

Winwood played guitar, bass and organ on Traffic's original recording of "Pearly Queen." He bows to Clapton's experience on guitar for the Garden show performance of the song, sticking with the organ. The way Clapton takes off during his solo you can tell he's been crouching in wait to play this number to show what he can do. Clapton's played "Pearly Queen" before as part of the "Rainbow Concert" in 1973 with Traffic's Winwood, Capaldi, Grech, and Rebop Kwaku Baah as part of his back up band, but he was still coming off of years of heroin addiction and not up to the task. Ian Thomas handles Jim Capaldi's rolling drum solo at end, and although he lacks Capaldi's muscular flash, he plays with lumbering efficiency. As Thomas launches into his bit, Winwood smiles at him as if he's pleased with the way he's paying homage to his late band mate.

Clapton shows he's a much improved vocalist with the duo's rendition of Derek and the Dominoes "Tell the Truth." He's aggressive, and the impossible "Who's been foolin' whooooo" harmony is flawless, thanks to Winwood taking original Dominoes' keyboardist Bobby Whitlock's high parts.

Winwood's only glitch comes during the first verse of "No Name, No Face, No Number," a ballad he recorded with Traffic in 1967 and has seldom sung since. After belting out "Tell the Truth," it's a challenge for Winwood to coral his voice and settle into the song's gentle folk nuances, so he gets off to a wobbly start. Closing his eyes, Winwood finds his voice during the second verse, delivering a tender reading of one of Capaldi's romantic lyrics.

With the passing of Ray Charles and Richard Manuel (The Band), the only singer left that can do "Georgia on my Mind" justice is Winwood, who first sang a version with The Spencer Davis Group when he was a teen. It's his solo spotlight song, and his organ playing is as warm as a Georgian sun in August.

Blind Faith's signature tune was Winwood's haunting "Can't Find My Way Home", in which he whispered, moaned and wailed like a tortured spirit on the road to purgatory. Winwood lays down a nimble acoustic solo and Clapton instinctively wraps his electric guitar fills around it, and yes, Winwood can still thrill and chill with his choir boy cries. Nice to hear the boys reclaim the song after artists like Widespread Panic (whose version caused one) and House of Lords have bollocks it up over the years.

The guitar duel between Winwood and Clapton in "Dear Mr. Fantasy" brings to mind the Winwood/Dave Mason six string showdown on Traffic's live album, "Welcome to the Canteen." The Winwood/Clapton version is more cooperative, more balanced effort in which Winwood shows he a consummate guitarist. (We already know Eric can handle an axe.) The Winwood/Mason duel is worth a listen for its violent competitiveness; plus you get Jim Gordon driving the beat like a well oiled piston.    

Not everything the old buddies do is legendary. The idea of substituting Clapton's guitar for Chris Wood's sax in the Traffic instrumental "Glad" is ludicrous. It's like setting Pink Floyd to country music (which I'm sad to say, has been done). And I understand your respect and love for the blues, Eric, but it's time to stop using the genre as an excuse to perpetrate variations on the same solo. (Maybe I should blame Stevie; he did select Clapton's set.) But Steve can't be held responsible for the dull edge Clapton lends to old blooze warhorses "Rambling in my Mind" or "Double Trouble." Blind Faith's "Sleeping on the Ground" is also a snoozer - the fact the group chose to leave it off of their only album in 1969 was a brilliant decision; reviving it wasn't. The other two selections to skip are Clapton's endless "Forever Man" and the whiny "Presence of the Lord," one of Blind Faith's weakest cuts (it barely edges out the Ginger Baker penned "Do What You Like" which wins because it was allowed to continue for an inexcusable 15 minutes.)    

Keeping the Faith...The Extras

The extras include interviews with Clapton and Winwood, plus generous helpings of clips and photos from the duo's separate careers and their days together in Blind Faith.
There's a vintage black and white snippet of Traffic performing "40,000 Headmen" live with Jim Capaldi on drums, Winwood on organ and vocals and the underrated imp Chris Wood on flute that illustrates how creative the trio was. There are also several nervous moments from Blind Faith's free concert debut in Hyde Park that drew 80,000 hyped up fans.

The duo is upbeat and candid when it comes to their on again off again partnerships and Blind Faith's crash and burn. They met when Winwood was 14 and Clapton was 18, so Clapton looked after Winwood, who thought of Slowhand as an older brother: "He still treats me as a younger brother," Winwood laughs.

When Cream collapsed amidst flying fists and much acrimony, Clapton wanted to work with Winwood, but admits he felt Winwood wasn't too keen on the idea because he was still working with Traffic. Winwood stops short of agreeing adding, "I never lost my allegiance to Capaldi and Wood, but always felt it should be easy to move from one group to another." (Guess so. Traffic broke up and reformed three times in seven years.)

When they finally got to work together in Blind Faith, Clapton felt the U.S. concert tour overwhelmed the group; that they played better in smaller venues in Europe. "No one was expecting the moon," Clapton laments. Winwood recalls he felt they were under amplified, "'Can't Find My Way Home' and 'Presence of the Lord' were quiet songs," he notes. Clapton hated the idea of Blind Faith being called a supergroup, and confesses he worried he'd damaged his relationship with Winwood when he pulled out of the group so quickly.

The DVD's sound, lighting and picture are High Def perfection. You can see the glint in Winwood's eyes and the circles under Stainton's, even though he's in the background. You'll say "Well, all right" every time you sample the duo's crisp craftsmanship, and be "glad" you own a copy of their musical trip down memory lane.



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