Eric Clapton: At 79, the voice is thinning but he’s still playing like an immortal

Eric Clapton performing last year
Eric Clapton performing last year - Kevin Winter

“I’m going deaf, I’ve got tinnitus, my hands just about work,” Eric Clapton admitted in 2018. “It’s amazing to me I’m still here.”

Yet, indeed, here he was, at 79, strolling onstage at the Utilita Arena in Newcastle, on the first date of yet another world tour, his first live appearance of the year. “I have to get on the bottom of the ladder every time I play guitar, just to tune it,” he admitted in that interview, discussing the effects of peripheral nerve damage in his fingers. So there was a tangible nervousness amidst the excited anticipation of the 18,000-strong audience as their hero stood in the shadowy darkness repeatedly strumming two minor chords with all the complexity and finesse of a beginner at his second lesson. Then as his seven-piece band eased into the rhythm, Clapton began to tentatively pick out a silvery motif, before his fingers slid down the neck of his guitar to unleash a flutter of sweet, long high notes full of tone, melody and nimble touch. The piece was Blue Rainbow, an unrecorded and unreleased instrumental, but the roar of the crowd might have made you think you were hearing some long lost classic. God was back in the house. Hallelujah.

The “Clapton is God” graffiti that pronounced his deified status first appeared on a wall in north London in 1967. The blues tyro was the first real guitar hero of the modern rock age, a fiery virtuoso whose rich tone and delicate touch unleashed the full potential of the instrument. His personal reputation suffered during years of alcoholism, drug abuse and egotistic ranting in the 1970s for which some have never forgiven him, but through remorseful apologies and dedicated philanthropy Clapton is surely a living personification of a person’s capacity to change for the better. As for his musical status - he’s still playing like an immortal.

This was his first time in Newcastle since the 1960s, when he spoke about playing a show with Eric Burdon of the Animals, although he seemed unsure about whether it might have been Leeds or Manchester. “Who can remember?” he shrugged, apologetically. It was about all he said during the evening apart from band introductions, but he let his fingers do the talking on a satisfying set that included Cream heavy rock classics (White Room, Cross Road Blues, Sunshine of Your Love), a warm blast of gospely Blind Faith (Presence of the Lord), a thrillingly funky charge through Derek and the Dominos’ Got to Get Better in a Little While, and solo favourites including a sincere and touching acoustic rendition of Tears in Heaven and a crowd-pleasing romp through Cocaine.

His voice – never his strongest asset – has thinned, but as a bluesman who has revered the qualities of old players and singers since his youth, he seems content to express himself with whatever he has at his disposal. He sang emotively, played with intuitive grace, and beamed with delight at his virtuoso band members as they all dipped in and out of the arrangements.

There was no room for his most beloved hit, Layla, and some speculated it was because Clapton is upset that his ex-wife Pattie Boyd (the subject of the song) recently sold his love letters to her in auction. But let’s see. It is the first night of a world tour, and singing lovelorn odes to estranged exes is surely a huge part of what the blues is all about.

Back in the 1960s, Clapton’s take on the blues was world-changing. Sixty years on, the blend of shuffles, rockers and delta acoustic blues is standard bar room band fare. But in the hands of a guitar god, it was delivered with a finesse that elevated it to a genuinely heavenly plane.

Touring the UK until May 24;