For the third song of his set last night at Madison Square Garden, Eric Clapton invited out the first guest of the night: John Mayer, who Clapton has called a "master" guitar player. They launched into 1989's swaggering, gospel-steeped "Pretending." Midway through, Mayer played a melodic, fat-toned, piercing solo. Clapton shook his head, grinning, looking ready for a challenge. For his lead, Clapton stepped on his wah-wah pedal for the only time of the night, letting out a threatening flurry on his Stratocaster. There was no doubt who the master was.
That was the case throughout Clapton's 70th Birthday Celebration (the actual big day was March 30th), which featured friends like Jimmie Vaughan, Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall Jr. sitting in. It may be an off-year for Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival (it takes place every three years), but this show felt like being at the fest. Clapton, grey-haired in a vest and glasses, looked professorial, a teacher watching over his musical students with pride. To add to the master-class vibe, gigantic video screens behind Clapton focused more on his fingers than his face, proving he had lost none of his technical facility.
Clapton's show has its faults — why add backup singers on "Hoochie Coochie Man"; Why acoustic "Layla?" — but the moments Clapton let loose, like "I Shot the Sheriff," when he let silence hang for a moment and then produced a virtuosic, searing jolt of sounds – made those gripes feel minor. During the latter moment, Mayer, sitting in the bowl next to Katy Perry, practically jumped out of his seat, held his hands high and clapped, looking around as if to make sure others were appreciating it, too. Mayer and Perry continued to boogie in their seats during "Crossroads" and "I Shot the Sheriff."
While some aging acts expand their bands over time, adding players to do the heavy lifting, Clapton has stripped his down. These days, he has no backup guitarist, giving him far more room to stretch out. Beginning with the 12-bar "Somebody's Knocking," his tone throughout the night was clean and spare, his playing an exercise in restraint and expertly-chosen flourishes and dynamic shifts. He picked up the acoustic to belt country blues "Drifting Blues" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," filling each song full of masterful fingerpicking.
But Clapton was happy to share the spotlight. After the acoustic set, he plugged in and invited friend Jimmie Vaughan out for "Before You Accuse Me" trading licks while laughing over a Texas Roadhouse shuffle. He let keyboardist Paul Carrack sing "You Are So Beautiful" and gave Carrack and fellow keyboardist Chris Stainton ample room to stretch out on "Little Queen of Spades."
Bramhall and Derek Trucks joined for 1970's "Let It Rain," Bramhall playing a tasteful, melodic solo, while Trucks unleashed a trademark demonic attack. And for the encore, Clapton invited all the guests out for for a cover of Joe Cocker's "High Time We Went," with Carrack on vocals. Everyone looked eager to impress their friend, pulling out their signature tricks, Vaughan showcasing tremelo-drenched spookiness while Trucks watched over him, grinning before letting out his own slide guitar fury, Mayer playing a solo that nodded to Vaughan's brother Stevie Ray.
Nobody was enjoying it more than Clapton, who late in the night, addressed the crowd: "Thank you very much for helping me celebrate this wonderful gift with these wonderful friends."