The reunion of former Blind Faith bandmates Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood marks the latest gold brick in Clapton's path down memory lane that has seen the legendary British rock guitarist rekindle some of his most legendary collaborative partnerships in recent years ranging from his old Cream mates Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to 461 Ocean Boulevard songwriting partner JJ Cale to fellow Yardbirds alumni Jeff Beck, not to mention his 2000 duet album with boyhood hero B.B. King, the worthwhile Riding With The King (which is long overdue for a revisit, at least in my own rotation).
However, in working together again with Winwood, EC seems more alive (sonically speaking) than he has in years. Well, at least from the sound of the reconvened duo's immaculate concert recording from their trio of dates at the fabled Manhattan arena in February of 2008. Maybe it's the sense of extra added love for the material performed at those shows or the genuine impenetrable chemistry these two old mates share together, but Live From Madison Square Garden (released May 19 on WEA/Reprise) arguably stands as Clapton's finest official live release since the 1974 Rainbow Concert album, or at least since his stint as the lead guitarist in George Harrison's band for the late Beatle's long, lost Live in Japan from 1992. It certainly blows away the rather wooden performance he gave on that very MSG stage in 2005 when he got back together with Cream (a reunion commemorated on the CD/DVD release of the trio's stiff performance at the Royal Albert Hall). At least from where I was sitting in the audience on the night I went, those gigs saw Jack Bruce carry the majority of those reunion shows with his fiery vocal delivery and impeccable bass playing while an unhealthy-looking Ginger struggled to keep up the pace on his drum set and Clapton essentially phoned in the riffs for Spoonful" and White Room" with a bored look on his face.
Such is not the case between Winwood and Clapton. Live From Madison Square Garden, released as a two-CD set and a DVD, shows both men sharing equal time on stage and hitting their marks with the enthusiasm and energy of men half their age. Ably supported by a stellar back-up group rounded out by session bassist extraordinaire Willie Weeks, Ian Thomas on drums and Chris Stainton on keyboards, the old friends ramble through the entirety of Side One of the Blind Faith album, highlighted by stellar renditions Presence of the Lord" on disc one and a phenomenally soulful version of Can't Find My Way Home" on the second disc, not to mention BF's cover of Sam Myers' Sleeping in the Ground," a rarity that made its official debut on the 2001 deluxe edition of the super group's 1969 masterpiece.
Clapton and Winwood round out the show with an apt sampling of their back catalogs, markedly Derek and the Dominoes' Tell The Truth", Clapton's own pair of smash hits in After Midnight" (the original fast version, mind you, not the beer commercial edition) and Cocaine," and Winwood's Traffic anthem Dear Mr. Fantasy" (a big thanks to both Steve and Eric for avoiding their equally dreadful '80s material). They also performed a slew of covers that make up almost a third of this collection, including a buoyant tribute to the late Buddy Miles with a brassy spin through Them Changes," a solo Winwood crooning his way through Ray Charles' Georgia On My Mind" and an ace pair of Jimi Hendrix covers, Little Wing," which Clapton originally took a stab at on Derek and the Dominoes' Layla and other Assorted Love Songs, and a sprawling 16-plus minute jam through Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile" (the Side One version) that features some of the most impassioned blues guitar this writer has heard EC burn through in years. In fact, to get the full effect, you might actually want to pick up the DVD, just so you can watch the master at work for yourself.
Any fan of the classic rock staples that both Clapton and Winwood have provided for three generations will certainly benefit from owning this most exceptional concert album.