Given Eric Clapton’s recent hints that 2014 will be his last year on the road, you’d be forgiven for expecting a greater sense of occasion when Slowhand took to the stage in Dubai. Or, in fact, even a sense of acknowledgement – aside from a few cursory ‘thank you’s, the guitarist seemed to do his utmost to avoid contact with the 14,000-strong Media City audience. We’re pretty certain he didn’t open his mouth to utter the two syllables of ‘Dubai’ once.
Still, this is a man known for music, and we’ll judge him on that alone. Not that there was any sense of occasion there, either. Opening with a somewhat lumbering take of 1989 single ‘Pretending’, a Jerry Lynn Williams cover, Clapton quickly showed he was in the mood for looking back. Leading a six-piece backing band, he trudged a deeper groove on extended blues vamps ‘Key to the Highway’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, but despite some unmistakable Clapton guitar work there was no escaping a certain malaise which seemed equally evident on the stage as it was in the stalls.
The mood was soon saved with a duo of Slowhand’s best-known numbers, ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, both wringing out some of the 68-year-old’s most fluent playing – the former aching, restrained licks and inflections, the later climaxing with a fast and furious storm of blues bends.
While these glimmers of brilliance showed Clapton’s technical prowess to be undiminished – those controlled but emotive chops which have seen him ranked as the world’s best player after Hendrix – a five-song seated acoustic set exposed his voice to ravages of time. Tasteful readings of ‘Layla’ and ‘Tears in Heaven’ brought out a sea of cameraphones, iconic musical moments crystallised on demand for public consumption.
His signature Strat plugged back in, it was back to the blues to close, with Bo Diddley’s ‘Before You Accuse Me’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘Cross Road Blues’ – the song he and Cream turned upside-down 46 years previously – cooking hotter than the earlier workouts. And then Clapton was gone, ending much as he began, with a forgettable cover – a one-song encore of Joe Cocker’s 'High Time We Went', Clapton not even bothering to approach the mic, instead leaving Mike + The Mechanics man Paul Carrack to take his third vocal of the night.
Eric Clapton’s reputation as a musical legend was secured in a haze of graffiti before his 23rd birthday, and it’s not a novel insight to say that despite some memorable ’70s singles, Slowhand has treaded little fresh ground for the past four decades. Yet the world’s most celebrated living guitarist has clearly earned the right to play whatever he wants, whenever he wants, whether that be retracing his roots and reviving the blues classics that first inspired him, or keeping his fans happy (and his wallet full) by reliving the hits. The problem is that Clapton is doing both, yet appears enthused by neither mode more than the other.
In light of the announcement he’ll quit touring at 70 – little more than 12 months away – it’s an easy angle to celebrate the night as one of a legend’s final live dates in exotic climes. But on the basis of this performance alone, there’s no escaping the feeling that this musical heavyweight is choosing to bow out with a whimper rather than a growl.