Sunday, June 28, 2009 | 6:49 p.m.
Some things do get better with age.
Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood had a ball Saturday night – and they took 18,000 fans at the MGM Grand arena along for the ride.
A couple of rock dinosaurs dragging their sexagenarian carcasses into Las Vegas to make a little money?
No, these rock legends proved they are still vital.
Clapton and Winwood played together briefly in the “super group” Blind Faith in 1969. Last year’s reunion concert at Madison Square Garden recommended that a 14-city North American tour might be fun.
Good choice. Clapton and Winwood clearly enjoyed themselves Saturday night.
They roared out to answer the bell with dueling guitars on “Had To Cry Today” and “Low Down.” They moved to a more traditional lineup with Winwood on organ as Clapton outlined a taut rhythm on “After Midnight.”
These first three songs promised a delightful evening. The stars definitely were in top form. They’d picked a dynamite rhythm section -- Willie Weeks on bass, Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums and Chris Stainton on keyboards -- to drive the songs and capable backup singers Michelle John and Sharon White to sweeten the sound.
The evening’s first jewel came as Clapton and Winwood traded vocals and sang together on “Presence of The Lord.” No matter what they played after that, the show would be worth the price of admission.
The moved through several classics from Blind Faith and Traffic – Sam Myers’ “Sleeping in the Ground,” Winwood’s “Glad” and Buddy Holly’s “Well Alright.”
Clapton coaxed out a showstopper with his aching rendition of Big Maceo Merriweather’s “Tough Luck Blues.”
The band continued to soar on “Pearly Queen,” “There’s a River” and “Forever Man.”
Then Winwood sat down alone at the acoustic piano. He chopped out the counterpunch opening of “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and the atmosphere became supercharged.
The electricity lasted throughout an “unplugged” section with Clapton trading his Strat for a Martin and all the players sitting down. Clapton picked and sang continued Charles Brown’s “Driftin'” and shared vocals with Winwood on “How Long Blues.”
Winwood joined Clapton on acoustic guitar with “Layla” – even taking the solo break. They capped off the acoustic segment with a beautiful version of “Can't Find My Way Home.”
The band returned to its electric version and cranked it way, way up. The crowd loved the loud and rowdy version of “Split Decision” and the rambling cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.”
It howled for the encore and danced in the aisles for “Cocaine” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
But I was left to think the band sounded better before it started blistering ears and jamming to rekindle the good ol’ days.
The earlier part of the two-hour-plus set better showcased the mature skills of Winwood and, especially, Clapton. Always two of the most talented rockers, they have mellowed in the finest way.
They have lived long enough that the songs, especially the blues, now sound lived in and convincing.
They have learned to say more with less, and they are able – and willing now – to leave some things unsaid.
And playing with old friends, they are able to step back and display genuine affection – for the music, for their audience and for each other.
The joy in their music was an affirmation of the moment – not just of the past.
Footnote: What was up with that set? The psychedelic light show meets digital ultralounge under the big top theme looked like a bordello on fire. And the backlights seemed aimed to blind the fans in the nosebleeds.
Just when you were ready to shoot the designer, Clapton’s fretboard or Winwood’s keyboards were bent wonderfully across a dozen electric screens.
Footnote 2: I know he was writing about the music business in “Low Spark,” but it sounded very contemporary when Winwood was singing “The percentage you're paying is too high-priced while you're living beyond all your means.”