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

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