NEW YORK — It was Eric Clapton's birthday celebration, but it was the sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden that got a gift as the guitar god enthralled during a two-hour concert that included some of his biggest hits and guest stars including John Mayer.
There was no cake or "Happy Birthday" serenade; in fact, Clapton started Friday's concert in typical matter-of-fact fashion, with a brief salutation to the crowd before delving into a rollicking version of "Somebody's Knocking" from J.J. Cale. Still, the first in Clapton's two-night stand to mark his 70th (which actually happened March 30) was special, if only for Clapton's legendary guitar play, scorching through songs like "Hoochie Coochie" and "Queen of Spades," while measured but still stirring during songs like his acoustic "Tears in Heaven," which he switched up with a reggae arrangement more uptempo than the original version.
A special moment came when Clapton's keyboardist Paul Carrack performed a version of "You Are So Beautiful," popularized by Joe Cocker, a longtime Clapton friend who died in December. Clapton also dedicated a song to beloved mentor B.B.King, who earlier Friday announced that he is in hospice care in Las Vegas.
For his birthday bash, Clapton brought out a few of his guitar-playing friends: Mayer traded frenetic guitar licks with his idol on "Pretending," while he and Jimmy Vaughan were masterful together on the electric "Before You Accuse Me." Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall also delivered as they joined him on "Let It Rain."
They were all great complements to the show, but it was Clapton, of course, that kept the audience entranced, thrilling with those hands as he performed songs like "I Shot the Sheriff," ''Crossroads" and "Layla," and "Cocaine." Though Clapton has joked at times about taking a break from touring, Friday's concert showed that if he did, it would not be due to age: He has not slowed a beat.
Clapton said little to the crowd, but toward the end he let on that the night was just as magical to him as it was to the audience.
"I want to thank you for helping me celebrate," he said. "This is the best birthday I ever had."
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