Several years ago, Mike and I made a list of bands and musicians we want to make sure we see live, and we’ve been trying to check them off ever since. We’ve put a particular emphasis on the, shall I say, “senior legends.” Basically, the ones who might stop touring because they’re old. We’ve seen some amazing performers over the years, like The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Brian Wilson, The Police, Paul McCartney (Mike has seen Paul like 87 times), and our most recent concert, Eric Clapton.
Eric Clapton is a rock & roll icon and a Guitar God. He also rarely tours anymore. I assumed that was because 1) he’s old, 2) he’s already rich, and 3) he has peripheral neuropathy, which makes playing the guitar much harder and more painful for him. But after going to his concert last week, I realized that the answer is probably a little bit of 1, 2, and 3, but mostly I think he doesn’t tour because he appears to hate it.
I honestly didn’t even know if Clapton would go on the stage at all. We were originally supposed to see him in March, but the concert was canceled at the last minute because Clapton was sick. I expected the rescheduled concert to be canceled, too, but I was pleasantly surprised when I met Mike at the Forum in Los Angeles for the concert. We were as far away from the stage as you could get – literally the last row, straight back – but I told Mike it wasn’t a big deal because it’s not like Clapton has dancers or anything. “We’re just here to listen to him play.”
Clapton said literally the same two words to the audience the entire night. “Thank you.” Thank you when he got on stage, thank you after each song, thank you at the end of the night. That’s it. No interaction with the audience. No, “Sorry I had to reschedule,” or “Hi Los Angeles,” or even, “Thank you, Los Angeles.” In all of my life, I’ve never been to a concert where the performer didn’t interact with the audience in some way. That includes perpetual grump Bob Dylan. Even the costumed Yo Gabba Gabba characters showed more life than Clapton.
However, you go to a concert for the music, not the scintillating conversation. So I ignored Clapton’s quiet and watched him while he played. His hands flew over the guitar frets, and his fingers truly danced on the strings. There was no sign of the pain his hands must surely feel with every note. It was incredible to hear him play “Layla,” “White Room,” and “Wonderful Tonight,” (I went to the bathroom during “Tears in Heaven” because I avoid that song at all costs).
But the thing that really got me was his expression. He didn’t look like he was enjoying himself at all. The only time he smiled was when he finished the last song, and it was a smile of relief.
Maybe he’s not someone who visibly enjoys performing? He sounded great, and his backing band was amazingly talented. It was just hard to watch the show and not feel like we were hugely inconveniencing him. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but on stage. It wasn’t even close to the worst concert I’ve ever been to, but it didn’t leave me with the awe I was expecting…which I suppose is my own problem, not Clapton’s.
And I got a night out with Mike! That was easily my favorite part.