A trifecta of classic rock headliners on the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival concluded Sunday with Eric Clapton.
His performance on the Acura Stage at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots followed a Friday show by Santana on the same stage and Saturday’s Samsung Galaxy Stage performance by former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant.
Festivalgoers showed up in big numbers to see and hear Clapton, the British singer-guitarist ironically nicknamed “Slow Hand.” With possibly the biggest crowd of the weekend covering the field in front of the Acura Stage as well as the surrounding racetrack, Clapton clearly outdrew Santana.
Clapton’s long, deep music history includes stints with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream and supergroup Blind Faith in the 1960s, plus Derek and the Dominoes in the early ’70s; decades of solo success; and album collaborations with B.B. King and J.J. Cale.
On another warm day at Jazz Fest 2014, Clapton was cool and casual in a gray long-sleeved shirt, blue jeans and sepia-toned sunglasses.
Unlike the chatty Santana and Plant, he said little, other than thank-you’s at the end of songs.
The 69-year-old surely is a rock star, but Sunday at Jazz Fest he came to play the blues — or largely the blues. A devotee of Chicago blues, Mississippi Delta blues and Memphis blues, Clapton paid homage in song to the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson.
Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” got a passionate reading by Clapton and a band that included his fellow Brits Paul Carrack, playing organ, and guitarist and singer Andy Fairweather Low.
Later in the show, Clapton and company tore through a stomping version of a song he famously performed with Cream, Johnson’s “Crossroads.” Playing a Stratocaster, the guitar model of choice for so many guitar gods, he soloed twice in the song.
Clapton can play at impressive velocity if he wants to. He’s simply judicious with technical display. A whole show of showboating is neither effective nor musical.
Fairweather Low soloed for “Crossroads,” too, and later took the vocal lead in a song of his own.
Carrack, who’s essentially a British soul singer, had his moments in the spotlight, too, with “How Long,” a hit he had as a member of the British group Ace.
It was a highlight of the show, featuring Clapton stepping back to play rhythm guitar and then breaking out for another guitar solo.
As has been Clapton’s custom for years, he and his bandmates sat down for an acoustic set. Following the show’s blues bent, it included “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out,” a song popularized by Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and “Crazy Mama,” the biggest hit J.J. Cale ever had.
The acoustic set also featured a laid-back performance of a Clapton classic, “Layla.” His unplugged version of “Layla,” popular though it’s been, lacks the drama of the song’s passionate, original electric version.
Another Cale song, and one of Clapton’s biggest hits, “Cocaine,” brought things back to primal electric blues.
It preceded the show’s lone encore, a Joe Cocker song from 1971, “High Time We Went.”
After a show that delivered the blues-rock goods and then some, maybe Clapton was trying to tell his audience — which obviously wanted more — that it was time to go.