Take two marquee names from the 1960s — Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood — who have continually been able to reinvent their careers over the years, artists who can still generate considerable consumer interest just off their respective histories. Now fashion a big-ticket tour by pairing them on the same bill, toss them into one of the most heralded — and one of the least intimate — performance halls in the world in which to chronicle the whole thing and — presto! — you have instant, marketable rock nostalgia.
Live From Madison Square Garden, thankfully, is nowhere near that obvious or morose. But one has to admit that buzzers usually — and rightly — sound over live albums like this, even though Clapton and Winwood shared a connection at the end of the '60s in the short-lived Blind Faith that has largely gone unexplored ever since. Then again, fans were also aglow a few years back when Clapton briefly reteamed with Cream. Their resulting live album turned out to be pretty static and uninvolving.
But, shock of shocks, the new Live From Madison Square Garden abounds with solid playing, inspired performances and a sense of living history that, frankly, is a bit unexpected coming from these two. There is even a sense of surprise to the whole thing.
Not surprisingly, Winwood is the catalyst here. On tune after tune, his voice reflects an ageless sense of soul and bluesy integrity. Perhaps the most telling affirmation of Winwood's still vital performance strengths come not from the Blind Faith or Traffic catalogs, or even his own fine solo recordings — all of which are touched upon here. No, the kicker is that most familiar and perhaps overdone of soul anthems Georgia on My Mind, which Winwood sings and plays on Hammond B3 organ without accompaniment. It's a subtle, churchy rendering that emits a pronounced yet understated R&B glow.
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Elsewhere, Winwood pulls some real hares out of the hat in terms of song selections. How about the trippy Traffic lullaby No Face, No Name, No Number, the album-opening Blind Faith boogie fest Had to Cry Today or the ruminative 1986 rocker Split Decision, one of the few overlooked songs from the 1986 career-redefining album Back in the High Life? Through it all, Winwood sings with a plaintive, soulful wail that has only grown more mysterious.
The top-billed Clapton has his moments, as well — though they mostly come in his still-storied guitar work. Aside from a pair of ill-chosen solo career hits (1985's forgettable Forever Man and a truly strung out Cocaine), Clapton spends much of the live album embracing his blues roots.
He's right there with Winwood on the Blind Faith chestnuts Can't Find My Way Home and Presence of the Lord and helps bolster the guitar muscle behind Traffic relics like Pearly Queen and a searing Dear Mr. Fantasy. But Clapton is at his loosest — and, seemingly, happiest — when taking on Sam Myers' Sleeping in the Ground and a wonderfully sinister version of Otis Rush's Double Trouble.
As with Winwood, Clapton capitalizes on the moments when he has the stage to himself. For Robert Johnson's Rambling on My Mind and, on the DVD of Live at Madison Square Garden, the Johnson gem Kind Hearted Woman, Clapton is at peace with the world, playing the blues he has long adored as if he were meditating in his own living room.