Photos by Steve Cohen
Without much warning or buildup, the lights at the Xcel Center went out and Clapton and Winwood strolled onto the stage casually and launched into their first song, "Had to Cry Today." They took turns singing lead and meandered through a long set of songs, with only Winwood pausing to address the audience in a bumbling and semi-awkward fashion. Though the Blind Faith songs were recognizable to the middle-aged, pleated khaki-clad audience, the songs that received the biggest reactions were Clapton's hits. "After Midnight," "Crossroads," and an acoustic version of "Layla" were definite highlights.
Which isn't to say that Winwood was lacking in chops; he played a faithful rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" alone on the B3 organ, and later led the band in a sprawling, epic version of "Voodoo Chile" with an expertise that only a man who sat in on the original recording of the Jimi Hendrix song could exhibit.
The two men appeared extremely comfortable on stage, which is to be expected, but it also seemed to deflate the overall impact of the concert. Neither musician took control of the show or interacted in a very personable way with the audience, creating the sense that one was watching a televised concert rather than being a part of a unique live experience.
At least, that's the impression I got, as someone who didn't grow up listening to this music. The rest of the audience seemed all too happy to observe Clapton and Winwood's rote performance, and the people-watching proved just as interesting as the show itself. An overwhelming majority of the near-capacity crowd fit neatly into the upper-middle-class white demographic, and they stared at Clapton with awe, pure joy washing over their faces as he noodled up and down his fretboard. I couldn't help but smile to myself as a man in a polo shirt one row ahead of me stuck his middle finger in the air over and over again as a sign of approval, smiling through all of Clapton's solos and yelling "Rock and roll, fuck yeah!" with unironic glee.
Clapton certainly knows his way around a 12-bar blues progression, and he could get the entire stadium cheering just by soloing on the guitar. Some solos were more complex and intricate than others, but Clapton played them all with ease, causing the entire audience to close their eyes and sway back and forth to the sound of his instrument. He may not have shown a lot of charisma, but Clapton still commanded the crowd with his sheer technical ability, leaving the big crowd pleased at the end of the night.