On two consecutive nights last weekend, Eric Clapton and Green Day played two very different shows at Mohegan Sun Arena, both to sell-out crowds. Clapton was up first on Friday, but Green Day was already in town and were spotted checking out the guitar legend's set. Renee Zellweger was also seen in the crowd — she's dating Clapton's second guitarist Doyle Bramhall II.
Clapton arrived on stage with little fanfare, setting the stage for a no-frills performance with understated production, minimal between-song banter and plenty of burning solos, with hits drawing from the many eras of his 50-year career. It was a classy and au naturel show, just a dude in a (large) room playing his songs with a band, and he happens to be Eric Clapton. To my surprise his voice was right on from the very start, emotive and consistently on-pitch. It's three weeks into his tour, and the band was in a sweet spot where it's gelling from playing every night, and Clapton is fully warmed up.
"Hello Old Friend" (from 1976) was the opener and powerhouse drummer Steve Jordan kept the groove lively with Clapton opting for an acoustic guitar to start things off. It was when he picked up his black Strat for "Tell the Truth," a Derek and the Dominos song from 1970's Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs that the room really became electrified. When he dug in for that first solo, there was no mistaking who was picking. He's still got it, and he still makes it seem really easy. And it was the Dominos songs we were most excited to hear, considered by many to be his best work. From that one record we also heard "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad" and an acoustic take on Jimmy Cox's "Nobody Knows It When You're Down and Out."
Other greatest hits we heard were "I Shot the Sheriff," "Wonderful Tonight," "Tears in Heaven," "Crossroads" and "Cocaine." There were four Robert Johnson covers, a Ledbelly song and even a version of Squeeze's "Tempted" with keyboardist Chris Stainton on lead vocals. We were spared "Layla," which seemed appropriate given the laid backedness of the whole experience. "Layla" would have been a bit much. When it came time for the encore we were treated to "Sunshine of Your Love," the quintessential Cream single, and a way hipper way to wrap things up.
It'd been over a decade since my last Green Day show, and I wasn't quite prepared for how much they'd changed since then. What was once a power-pop trio had doubled in size to a wall-of-sound six-piece band, sometimes with three electric guitars bashing away at once. The sloppy, irreverent slackers from the East Bay had morphed into a tight, theatrical band that seemed to take themselves way too seriously. It was an arena rock show, through and through. At some point these guys turned into KISS, and they're very successful at it. Don't get me wrong, they sounded great and have improved as players. But I missed the nonchalance of the whole scene in the old days. Billie Joe Armstrong kept demanding that we clap our hands and sing "Heyyyy Ohhhhh" in just about every song, and it grew tiresome. It made me long for the days when they'd play spontaneous covers and talk about poop and didn't really seem to care what the crowd thought of them.
The audience was a mixed bag of families, teens and dancing middle-aged people. The merch was pretty lame looking and overpriced. In the general admission area on the floor where there once would've been a pit, there was a sea of cell phones, all capturing every moment of the show and lighting up the arena with their collective LED screens.
Personal highlights hailed from the olden days, like "2,000 Light Years Away," "She," "Chump" and "Coming Clean," as you might expect from an older fan, but they seemed out of place in this context — and the kids really seemed to be into the new incarnation of the band. It's a slicker musical universe out there these days, and this was one slick show.
Musicians sometimes need to reinvent themselves to keep the machine chugging along, so you can't even fault Green Day for morphing into what they've become. I never considered them sell outs even when they got huge because they never changed what they did. Twenty years later (!!!) they still put on a great show, and they sound tight and energetic and perfect... I just wished they'd sound a little less perfect and that they wouldn't take the whole thing so seriously.
Green Day, in your face. (Khoi Ton photo)
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