Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Clapton in Shanghai






I haven’t paid for a whole lot of concert tickets for the last 15 years or so. I’ve been on that Guitar World gravy train for so long that sometimes I forget how much cash real people tend to pay for such events. Sure, I usually bought tickets for one Allmans show a year at the Beacon so I could have a good seat and enjoy the show like a civilian. Those tickets are usually about 75 bucks and that seemed like a lot.

I follow the industry and I know that tickets are getting higher and higher, with VIP, Gold Circle rings and all the rest.. with bands like the Eagles charging over 500 bucks for the best seats in the house. I knew that was all happening but it didn’t apply to me so I didn't pay that much attention. Until now.

Suddenly, here I was laying out hundreds of clams to go see Eric Clapton almost 700 miles away. Clapton of all people, the guy I’ve denounced countless times for reasons both petty and personal and musically substantial. I passed on a free ticket form the band to spend over $200 bucks to go with my friend Matt Carberry and a bunch of his pals. I figured that if I was trekking all the way down there, I didn’t want to sit alone and I had no idea where the ticket would be and there’s always a 20-40 percent chance of that getting fouled up anyhow. So I laid out the cash, and I bought a plane ticket (about $200) and a hotel room (about $100), all the while being amused at the expense but never fretting it or doubting it.

This despite the fact that I had the chance to see Clapton at MSG a few years ago, a free ticket in my name waiting at Will Call, and passed on it to go play in the basement with Josh Tarnow, hacking out bad blues and Allman Brothers tunes instead of hopping a train to Penn Station to see the real thing for the price of an NJT roundtrip ticket from Maplewood. I thought of that when I climbed into a cab at 7 am Saturday morning and set off for the Beijing airport.

The main reason for going and why it was a no-brainer is that is I just don’t get to see much music around here and it has been such a huge part of my life for so long. It’s strange to go months without seeing a live performance. I do make it out to see jazz fairly regularly and I do enjoy that but it doesn’t give me the same adrenaline rush. Also, Derek Trucks is now in Clapton’s band. As I said before, I have been writing about Derek and following his career since he was 10 or 11 (he’s 26 now). He is something of a friend, I have spent a lot of time with him, I like him as a person, and , more importantly, over the past two or three years he has really emerged as a my favorite guitarist.

I can't think of another instance where I actually watched a favorite musician develop, saw his growth, had a full understanding and appreciation of where he had come from, where he was and where he might go. I’ve caught on to the other greats after they were fully developed. And playing with Clapton is a big deal for Derek, no matter how you shake it. I wanted to see it.

I got into Shanghai at around 10:30 and took a cab over to the apartment of my friend Alan Dezon. He’s here for Ticketmaster and we were introduced by Bert Holman, ABB manager. We enjoy each other’s company, swapping war stories, shooting the shit about everything from the Allmans to Chinese food. He’s also a regular reader of this blog so I’ll take the opportunity to say thanks for the great coffee and I hope to see you again soon, Alan.

We chatted for a while and I hopped a cab to the Four Seasons where I was meeting Derek and fellow guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for lunch and an interview for a story that should run in Guitar World. I had a bit of a photographer fiasco which is long and convoluted but related to me having such long days last week that I could not properly take care of bidness. Anyhow, it turns out that both Doyle and Derek are Leica bugs.. big surprise, so is Clapton, who took them to the Leica store in Germany.

Doyle knew what he was doing and he had a beautiful big digital Leica and he became our official photographer, snapping great shots of Derek and even setting up some cool ones of himself, both with a self timer and by handing me the camera after setting it up. Sometimes I feel like I take pretty good photos and then I look at someone who really knows what they’re doing. Doyle’s Leica really amplified that because it is a serious piece of equipment that I really didn’t know how to use. He sent them to me this morning and they look great, so hopefully I’ll get the story into GW and be able to post some up here.. that is still vexing me. [I can post from online but not my computer.] We had a nice lunch.. dumplings, noodles, soup noodles, oolong tea, lots of good stuff.. then cabbed over to a market area.

There, we strolled up and down alley-like narrow streets lined with small stalls selling everything from junk to some really pretty cool stuff. Derek and Doyle wanted to look at old cameras, which were abundant in a few shops. Also some cool Victrolas, ancient radios, lots of stuff. Doyle bought a “diamond” encrusted fake Rolex, a real bluesman’s watch. I was disappointed that night when the showed close ups of his hands soloing and the watch wasn’t on his wrist.

I got them back to their hotel by 4 as they had to board a van to ride over to the arena at 5, and went back to the hotel for a little nap. I was staying in an incredibly strange but convenient place. The concert was in a basketball arena located in a sports complex. My hotel was inside the soccer stadium next door. Very strange. The whole place felt like a basement. My room was on the sixth floor but the windows appeared to be subterranean. I couldn’t quite figure it out.

Anyhow, it was convenient for stumbling over to the show, which I did at about 7:15. There were lots of scalpers outside.. always are, since a large chunk of tickets are given to party officials and such, who don’t really want to go. The floor tickets we had cost 1800 RMB – about $220. Guys were selling them for something like 800RMB, or so it seemed. I blew by them and walked in. There was plenty of security at the doors, lots of uniformed quasi-military guys floating around, though they all looked sort of befuddled at all the foreigners streaming in. They just smoke and smile and nod.

Inside, however, in contrast to the Backstreet Boys concert I attended and wrote about last year, there was little security, no weird floor seating, with oodles of extra space around each section. None of that. All of that was, I imagine, out of fear that too many Chinese together could potentially create problems. The EC crowd was largely foreign and tickets were a lot more expensive so the Chinese there were obviously high flyers. I suppose that’s why it all seemed much less security conscious and more “normal.” Or maybe it’s just the difference between Shanghai and Beijing. I can't say for sure but I think it’s the former.

We found our seats, tenth row stage left, and settled in. I’d say the crowd was 80 percent foreigners, at least around us. There was a huge diversity within that, though. A bunch of folks with kids, several people pushing 70. The Chinese around me looked really bored. There was a couple sitting behind me and the woman looked like she would have rather been just about anywhere, like she was trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. I would say that the Chinese members of the crowd were all particularly subdued.. or I would have until towards the end I heard some wild screaming, turned around it was three Chinese guys two rows directly behind me hooting and hollering. I thought that was great.

Actually, the crowd in general seemed surprisingly low key. It’s such a rare event and so many of us had traveled a lot to be there, so I expected more rowdiness. The thing is, t one of the big attractions of this show for me is that EC is digging deep into his catalog. He hired Derek in part to replicate Duane Allman’s Derek and the Dominos parts and relive that, extra appropriate given that Derek was named after the band. They opened with five D&D songs, including a few I don’t think he has played much if at all in years. That was fantastically exciting to me, but I’m sure quite befuddling to many. (I’ll post the entire setlist with comments at the bottom.)

The eighth song was ”Nobody Loves When You’re Down and Out” done semi acoustically – three guitarists seated, EC on acoustic, others electric. It’s a 70 or 80-year-old Bessie Smith song but it was also on Unplugged, his best-selling album, and as soon as he started playing it, the crowd roared and grew much more animated and it struck me, “Most people don’t know any of these songs.” I understand and even feel for them, actually, but I can’t tell you how much less I would have wanted to hear “Pretending” or “I Shot the Sheriff,” both of which were in the setlists earlier in the tour and have dropped away.

Hearing Clapton play Little Wing –with Derek!—was alone worth it all for me. It’s a Jimi Hendrix song, of course, recorded on Layla and I’m not sure how often he’s played it over the years, but I’ve never heard it. It evoked the holy trinity of Jimi, Duane and Stevie, who has a close relationship to Doyle – his father was SRV’s best friend and songwriting partner nd someone with whom I have enjoyed speakign with many times, though not in years. So to be standing in Shanghai communing in that way, well, it meant a lot to me.

And getting that feeling, meditative yet adrenaline pumping, having that wash over me, touch me deeply… that’s priceless. Something I need to have every once in a while. Something I get it at pretty much every Allmans show I go to for at least a while and the whole time on a good night. That’s why I keep going and never lose my excitement. It’s a central part of the seeing-music-I-love equation and it’s been absent, something I really miss. After the show, one of the people I was with, someone I don't know all that well, said,"You really looked like you were feeling it, eyes closed..." I have no idea what I look like at such times but I know what I feel like and it's something I need.

I forgot how much I also like Doyle’s playing. I really dug his band Arc Angels and a few other things he’s done but I haven’t seen him perform in well over a decade and I forgot how idiosyncratic he is (lefty playing righty guitar upside down, not restrung). He also has a prime role in the band, has been with EC for five years and does quite a bit of vocals s well. I read a few online reviews complaining that EC had ceded too much space to the other two guitarists but I totally disagree. I think he has reinvigorated himself having two young bucks up there snorting and threatening to kick him in the ass on every lick. I thought Clapton was on fire. He relentlessly drove the band from one song to another. His playing was propulsive and energetic. His rhythm playing fully engaged and creative.

The regular set ended with "Layla," a version far more similar to the original than any I've heard him do. Finally everyone got up and stood and clapped and danced and swayed and all that good stuff. It was weird to go through a whole exciting show seated. The band walked off, came back for an encore and a rush of folks surged forward. We ran right up to the stage and suddenly it felt very much like we were in a high school gym, like Eric Clapton was playing our high school dance. It felt like the expat prom.

We were in front of the giant P.A. speakers so the sound was way deficient from what it was 20 feet back (surprisingly good!), but it felt good to be there, to push together a little bit, to strain to see over the little girl on her dad’s shoulders in front of me, to look at Clapton digging into “Crossroads” and Derek pushing him on and Doyle smiling. It just felt really homey and I had this sense that everyone was thinking, “Ha! We are seeing Eric Clapton play Robert Johnson in f’in Shanghai! What a world. What a life.”

Overall, I was struck by how much the whole thing felt like a real band, flesh and blood, unscripted, not a stage show. EC seemed inspired by Derek and Doyle and the rhythm section of Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan. I’ve seen EC a bunch of times and the last few it seemed really staid. No one in the group pushed him or challenged him and it was like him playing over backing tracks, running through the hits, playing and singing really well but not so inspired. None of that this night and pushing up close to the stage and hearing the sound form the amps instead of the PA really brought that home.

Then it was over. They walked off and I thought they had to come back, that can’t be it. People stomped and cheered and clapped and they had to come back.. but nope lights on, that was it. Just about 1:45, maybe less, which really seemed too short. I looked it up and they had been doing two-song encores, the other tune being “Cocaine.” I haven’t confirmed it yet, but I’ll bet anything they were told not to play that by the authorities. But they could have plugged something else in there. His catalog is plentiful. So they left me wanting more, but feeling good.

We filed out into the cold drizzly night, walkign amidst a crowd feeling that same post-orgasmic buzz I’ve experienced en masse at so many shows. I heard two guys talking and one said, “The beginning was really boring but then it took off after the acoustic part.” The beginning was the Derek and the Dominos stuff.

We went back to the bar in my hotel, on the 12th floor, overlooking the lit-up but empty soccer stadium and the expat prom continued well into the wee hours. Eventually, a bunch of us left and went to a crazy club. That’s another story for another post though, and a good one at that. I promise to cough it up soon.

First, I need to figure out if this is worthy of tweaking into a column for next week. Let me know your thoughts. I have to see if I can make this all make sense.


01. Tell The Truth
02. Key To The Highway
03. Got to Get Better in A Little While
Kicked off strongly by Weeks and Jordan, and EC’s rhythm playing.
04. Little Wing ( See above.. really a holy moment for me)
05. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?
Really sweet gentle coda with DT and EC trading licks, brining it down to a whisper.
All of the above are Derek and the Dominos songs.


Sit Down Set
06. Driftin' Blues (EC Solo)
Very nice version of a Charles Brown classic. I remember watching his Unplugged when it aired and being let down.. this is what I wanted to hear. I thought it was lame that it sounded like a more subdued band concert. Shows what I know.. it resurrected his career.
07. Outside Woman Blues
08. Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
Shanghai crowd goes wild for a Bessie Smith tune.
09. Running On Faith
Good tune… Matt Carberry’s favorite…

10. Motherless Children
Nice to hear this old gem off of 461 Ocean Blvd. All three guitarists played the slide lick in unison, which was quite powerful. Anther old favorite I’ve’ never heard him play live.
11. Little Queen of Spades
A full band stretch out on this slow blues Chicago-style version of a Robert Johnson tune.. very nice. Everyone shined.. Derek took it the house.
12. Further On Up The Road
Always a favorite of mine. Bobby “Blue” Bland!
13. Wonderful Tonight
Got to throw the ladies a bone.
14. Layla
Full–on great version, with Derek playing the Duane part perfectly, nailing that sucker. EC had his back turned to him, in a way he didn’t the rest of the night. There’s no way this didn’t get him off. I wondered if he turned around so he can shut his eyes and imagine it’s Duane. No one else can nail that sound like this. God knows how many times he’s played this in the last 35 years, but doing so with Derek has to be special.

Encore
15. Crossroads
Well done but ended the show too fast and early.