NEW YORK Eric Clapton played guitar for R&B diva Mary J. Blige, sang
backup for pop-rocker Sheryl Crow and shared a microphone with folk-rocker Bob Dylan
during a three-and-a-half-hour benefit concert Wednesday night for Clapton's drug and
alcohol treatment center in Antigua.
When the rock-guitar icon wasn't doing all of that, he was running
through more than three decades of his own hits, from his '60s power
trio Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" to his Grammy-sweeping 1992 acoustic
ballad "Tears in Heaven."
It was a crowd-pleasing concert, to say the least. "I flew in from L.A.
just for the show, and it was worth every penny," Larry Appel, 49, said.
And if the Madison Square Garden show, billed as "Eric Clapton and
Friends," sometimes had the feel of a VH1 special, it was no accident
the show was filmed for future broadcast on that channel.
The cameras caught some memorable moments in which history loomed large.
Dylan, the evening's final guest, sang a duet with Clapton on a loping
version of Cream's "Crossroads" (RealAudio
excerpt), a song Cream adapted from "Crossroads Blues" by blues
pioneer Robert Johnson, who influenced both men.
Crossroads is also the name of the rehabilitation center that Clapton,
a former addict, recently opened on the Caribbean island of Antigua,
where he has a vacation home.
The two men 58-year-old Dylan in an old-fashioned Western suit
with wide stripes, and 54-year-old Clapton in the kind of sleek black
suit that has been his trademark since the '80s shared a microphone
for the song and played rhythm guitar on nearly identical Fender Stratocasters.
They sang every line of the song together in shaky but earnest harmony,
and then traded lead-guitar licks, with Clapton peeling off blues lines
as polished as his black leather shoes, and a grinning Dylan gamely
plucking out simpler riffs.
In another resonant song choice, Clapton, Crow and jazz saxophonist
David Sanborn paid simultaneous tribute to two long-gone musicians with
an emotional rendition of Derek and the Dominos' much-altered version of
Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing."
The 53-year-old Sanborn's horn took the place of late Dominos guitarist
Duane Allman's slide part, while Crow, 37, took over the vocal harmonies.
Clapton, who rarely plays "Little Wing" live, seemed transported as the
group re-created the Dominos' 1970 recording.
Clapton never left the stage during the concert, though he sometimes
played a less prominent role. During Blige's set, which provided a
respite from the heavy weight of rock history, the guitarist stayed in
the background, playing rhythm and occasional fills and short solos.
Though many in the mostly middle-aged crowd appeared to be unfamiliar
with Blige's hip-hop- and jazz-inflected R&B, the 28-year-old singer
won over a good part of the Garden audience with vocal acrobatics and
pure gusto, especially on an over-the-top version of "Not Gon' Cry"
Still, some remained unimpressed. "Who was that woman? She wasn't very
good," Chetan Naik, 43, said after the show.
The crowd was less ambivalent about the other guests, especially Dylan
(born Robert Zimmerman). Dylan's set began with a countrified version of
"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and then moved to bluesy renditions
of the mid-'60s songs "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"
and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat."
Moving toward more recent work, Clapton and Dylan traded vocals on the
1990 obscurity "Born in Time," from Dylan's Under the Red Sky,
and Dylan reclaimed the microphone for a dusky version of "Not Dark Yet,"
from Dylan's most recent studio album, the acclaimed Time Out of Mind (1997).
Clapton, Dylan and Crow took the stage together for the show's final
encore, a loose, apparently spontaneous version of the Jimmy Reed blues
standard "Bright Lights, Big City."