Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis play the blues in Manhattan, Taj Mahal steals show


Image Credit: Julie Skarratt

On Saturday night, Eric Clapton finished his three-night celebration of the blues with Wynton Marsalis and Taj Mahal at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.

EW was on the scene at the concert, a disappointingly academic, PBS-ready affair with only a few glimmers of the throbbing passion and anguish that have defined this great American musical tradition.

That it was such a buttoned-down evening is all the more surprising because Clapton’s own rock canon, starting with the Yardbirds, has always been tinged by Chicago blues. Certainly his own slithering guitar mastery owes itself to the fuzz-toned, electro-blues sound of Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, and, of course, the “Three Kings,” Freddie, Albert, and B.B. Talking about his love of the genre during the show he said, “There’s something about the blues that’s on the level of the gods. There’s a humor to it, a depth to it. It’s completely universal.”

Clapton paired his electric guitar to Marsalis’ trumpet—along with eight others on bass, acoustic guitar, piano, cello, banjo, harmonica, and synthesizer—on ten indisputable jazz classics ranging from a novelty song like the fizzy “Ice Cream” to the bipolar New Orleans funeral hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Slowhand’s snaking guitar was particularly appreciated on “Forty-Four,” Howlin’ Wolf’s clickety-clack railroad ballad, and on Big Maceo Merriweather’s proto-rock lament “Kidman Blues.”

Still, Clapton’s contribution to the overall set seemed remarkably minimal. It’s admirable that he’s such a team player, willing to subordinate his own sound to that of the group and put musicianship above showmanship, but I suspect the audience wanted a little axe magic too. (Also, despite the nine other instruments sharing the stage, the band still seemed sonically incomplete, especially without that thumping one-two tuba beat on “Joe Turner’s Blues.”) That’s why I suspect the most popular choice of the night was a brassy, molasses-slow “Layla,” the only one of Clapton’s hits to receive a blues makeover.

Maybe the venue itself established the muted tone of the evening. The Rose Theater is absolutely beautiful, no doubt about it. But it feels a little too patrician a setting for earthy songs about poverty and injustice. Clapton and Marsalis—clad in suits and ties and sitting for the duration of the performance—waxed analytical between each song, or exchanged hyperbolically fawning compliments. (Marsalis on Clapton: “He’s the most completely honest man I’ve ever known. About many things.”) At times, it felt more like a lecture hall than a concert hall, with the blues not so much felt as considered in the abstract.

It’s possible that Taj Majal’s opening had raised the bar so high that nothing short of a musical pole-vault could have helped Clapton and Marsalis match it. Unlike their multi-part accompaniment from other musicians, Taj Mahal just offered himself—that rasping, “I’ve seen it all” voice, a light strum of an acoustic guitar, and a gentle shuffle of his feet to keep time.

What defined his four-song set was its intense, personal touch. Not to mention its sense of humor. During his lilting aloha to Hawaii, “New Hula Blues,” he drew a chuckle from the audience with lyrics like “Oh, darlin’, take off your shoes/Slice me some sashimi/gimme the new hula blues.”

Mahal also showed his versatility by bopping out some whiskey-cold boffola on the piano in “Blues With a Feeling,” a title that describes his method. With minimalist arrangements, he strips blues down to its bones. And its soul. When Clapton and Marsalis brought him back out for the finale, “Corrine, Corrina,” it was like a shot of musical adrenaline. Safe to say, on Taj Mahal’s watch, the blues won’t become just a museum installation anytime soon.

Set List

Taj Mahal
1.  “New Hula Blues”
2.  “Stagger Lee”
3.  “Spooky Blues”
4.  “Blues with a Feeling”

Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton
5. “Ice Cream” by Howard Johnson/Robert King/Billy Moll
6. “Forty-Four” by Chester Burnett/Howlin’ Wolf
7. “Joe Turner’s Blues” by W.C. Handy
8. “The Last Time” by Bill Ewing/Sara Martin
9.  “Careless Love” by W.C. Handy/Martha E. Koenig/Spencer Williams
10. “Kidman Blues” by “Big Maceo” Merriweather
11. “Layla” by Eric Clapton
12. “Joliet Bound” by “Kansas Joe” McCoy/”Memphis Minnie” McCoy
13. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” – Traditional
14.  Encore: “Corrine, Corrina” by Bo Chatmon/Mitchell Parish/J. Mayo Williams

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix)

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Comments (21 total) Add your comment
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  • Desmo

    This sounds like a awesome set list.

  • MCS

    Saw Taj Mahal a few years ago play at a blues festival in Australia without being familiar with his music. He was without doubt the highlight, amazing performance.

  • Color Me Impressed

    Why is the event’s subdued atmosphere a surprise to you? A guitar legend he may be, but Clapton has not been an exciting performer for years. I saw him about a year and a half ago, and he just sat there like a bump on a log the whole time, playing half-hearted solos to obscure blues tunes. It’s such a shame to see that this once virtuostic, electrifying musician has become irreversibly dull.

  • scott

    i’m sorry, but reviewer Christian Blauvelt has no idea what REAL jazz and blues is all about. It was NOT an Eric Clapton concert. It was an evening of blues/swing jazz, and as sucjh, it was sublime! The crowd was in an absolute frenzy the entire night. Judge for yourselves when the blu-ray is released.

    • scott

      When is the blu-ray available?


    That was a nasty shot about bringing up Enoch Powell. Clapton was an out of control drug addict and alcoholic in a black out blind rage when he spewed anti-black immigration support for Powell … in 1977.

    Get over it. The man has proven a 1000 times through charities and benefits to help the unfortunate. No other white musician has done more to promote the careers of Blues pioneers and the music genre. He has his faults but has admitted his wrong and and has been generally forgiven… except for smarly reviewers who have to crack on someone to somehow show they are “cool”. It is just idiotic to even bring something up tht happened a half life time ago. Move on.

  • Roger Lane

    You have zero knowledge of Jazz,it is more tightknit than rock .You have angst for Eric referring to his immigration comments from another era,funny how thats notb an issue anymore huh?My wife and i were at the show Friday night,absolutely incredible,what a waste of a ticket on you! Respectfully Roger

  • Belle

    How is this reviewer (13yrs old)? Seriously, do you even know jazz and the blues? And if his best friend the late George Harrison can forgive Eric for lusting, loving and eventually stealing his wife Pattie Boyd (Layla) then we can too.

  • Grover

    In stark contrast to a “patrician” and “academic” set, I saw Buddy Guy play last night (April 9) in Greensburg, Pa. The set was everything the blues should be: passionate, soulful and from the heart. When Buddy plays the blues, it’s not just “authentic.” He pours the pain, the struggle, and the joy he’s lived into every note. Do not miss him if he plays your town.

  • Mike

    Eric Clapton has the name and minimal talent… There are and have been so many great guitarists that it is galling to the point of revulsion to hear him listed amongst the greats..this is not a rant..I’m sure it has to be the feeling of most serious musicians

    • Faz

      That would be no.

    • John McAfee

      Come on man, Clapton has proved his marbles since his early days with the Yardbirds. As a professional musician jazz musician (who loves all genres), I’ve heard even the most stark and purist jazz cats show respect and praise Clapton. Yeah there are better guitarists (there’s always someone “better” than the next guy). But who cares? Music is about emotion, not competition.

  • Wil

    I was at the show on Saturday night and was absolutely blown away. This show was not about Clapton or Wynton, it was about coming together and making music that they can both relate to and be passionate about. To merge those two styles is a challenge and I think they pulled it off perfectly. I am a professionally trained musician and play in New Orleans style bands, the whole night felt great. There are many players out there who are better than Clapton, but he plays what he loves and has been an important to the music world.


    Buddy Guy is the best living blues guitarist alive along with B.B. King. And, I contend, there are thousands of great guitarists playing at jam nights around the USA and world. Go check out your neighbors rocking the local jams.

    Eric Clapton became Eric Crapton after Cream…
    Lay Down Sally and a few other post Cream tracks are still standouts. I think he has pretty much become a whore (with the Chicago Guitar fest to benefit his B.S. Island retreat for addicts with $30,000 in their pocket)who should just disappear.

    I had a friend reach out to his Antigua recovery center several times and received no response. BTW, she had the $30,000 to go there. BTW, she died last year from her addiction. So, whatever the fek they’re doing on that island, it didn’t help my friend.

  • grayreigns

    If everyone agreed about what constitutes “good” music and musicianship, the world would be a sorry place. That CB looks down an upturned nose at this rather daring foray is proof that reviewers can often opt for cranky over a professional attempt to understand a performance for what it is. That Marsalis, Taj Mahal, Beck, King, Burnett, Sumlin, McLoughlin, Allman, Guy, Gadd, and many others all recognize EC as a a peer makes sneering jabs at his popularity or personal life seem shallow and snobbish.

  • E M A N

    Christian Blauvelt… You are fired!
    Show reviews are hardly ever useful but this was particularly misleading. I am guessing you are my age (26) or younger, because there is no way anyone with any experience or general knowledge of rock, blues, and jazz could screw up quite the way you did.
    For starters you ruined your whole review by obviously misquoting. You could have caught your own mistake, had you any depth of knowledge of the genres on stage.
    Clapton was stating that this show was not easy for him, because the guys on stage are at the top of their game, and JAZZ was always intimidating for Clapton. He talked about the sophistication and how it made the genre “forbidden” to him. He said that JAZZ is on the level with the Gods. He said he was humbled to be on stage with such world-class musicians, and he felt honored and nervous to be in that seat.
    It doesn’t take but a shot of whiskey, and one string on a banjo to come up with some strong blues. That’s not a put down, that’s just music. How could you mistake Jazz for the blues?
    Did you listen to the set? Clapton solo’d on nearly every song, sang his damn heart out when we was at the mic. It was absolutely phenomenal. And yes Eric Clapton was a member of this group of jazz musicians for the weekend playing the blues. Not the superstar, front-center with a spotlight, and a band behind him. Not Lady Gaga. Even though there were to stars on stage, this was not a night about stars.
    Did you even notice that Wynton plays 2nd trumpet? This is all about the interplay of the musicians playing the music that has spawned life into their respective genres.
    Overall, Saturday night was one of the most amazing performances I have ever witnessed. I may be a bit over-zealous by stating this, but in the moment it felt like a historical event.
    Mr. Blauvelt. I suggest you get an itunes giftcard, an education in music, and furthermore…explore what you are passionate about. This review is a fail. Not a good look on your part. You should take your profession more seriously.
    (I didn’t even have to mention your Enoch Powell blurt. Please respond to confirm that you are between the age of 15 and 25 and have no clue what you are getting into.)

  • Alula

    Haven’t been lucky enough to get a ticket for the concert but I would like to say that Eric Clapton is one of my favourite musicians, plays the guitar like most guitar players would love to, and above all I find him to be a very humble man who does a great service to music with his extraordinary skills. I have watched him play many times at the Royal Albert Hall, never a primadonna who gives equal space to all the musicians and is a remarkable bluesman who delights us by exploring other genres. All the negative comments about his Enoch Powell burts etc are and should stay in the past. Everybody makes mistakes, we should try to learn from them and move on.
    Thanks Eric and Wynton and hopefully will get to see the concert on DVD soon.

  • tresorparis

    Great article. I cant wait to hear more about your research tool. If it is as good as your other products, then you will have another winner. Your article pretty much summed up what I have been seeing too. Great to see some hard data.

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