Eric Clapton quietly ambled onstage Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center looking professorial in his wrinkled denim sport jacket, dad blue jeans and wire-rim spectacles. With his black Stratocaster guitar, he eased into "The Shape I'm In."
"Out of nine lives, I spent seven," his lived-in voice declared in a song recorded by the Band in 1970. "Now, how in the world do you get to heaven? Oh, you don't know the shape I'm in."
Was this a tribute to its songwriter, the recently departed Robbie Robertson of the Band? A commentary on Clapton's life at age 78 after battling neuropathy, addiction and other issues?
Clapton didn't say anything other than shouting "Robbie Robertson" at the end of the second selection, "It Makes No Difference," another Band tune, this one a dour reflection on life without someone.
The guitar hero made only one pronouncement from the stage all night and it was a bit cryptic.
"Only a few people know this is like a home [away] from home for me," he told 15,000 fans in St. Paul. "Hazelden. Twice. So thank you."
More specifically, he spent a month at St. Luke's Hospital in St. Paul in 1981 for treatment for ulcers. Later, he did two stints in rehab at Hazelden in Center City, Minn., which he discussed in his 2007 autobiography.
Mostly, though, Clapton on Thursday just wanted to play songs that were meaningful to him, whether salutes to his pal Robertson, his blues forefathers or his son who died young in a tragic accident.
Clapton — the only three-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (with Yardbirds, Cream and solo) — arrives with such a ridiculously lofty reputation that he can never really be God or GOAT. On Thursday, he was good for the most part, and even great at times.
In his first Twin Cities appearance since 2009, the veteran Brit came across as an elder statesman taking a victory lap, touching on influences and highlights but stopping short of a fully satisfying retrospective. He's clearly slowed down, and not just because his nickname is Slow Hand (for his guitar playing style).
He still moves like Clapton: a gentle sway, a little shaking of his left leg to the beat, his head cocked back with eyes closed when he reached for those high notes on his guitar.
His guitar solos were mostly economic, one or two passes but seldom anything lengthy, and only a couple times did he truly suggest the excitement of his heyday — whether you consider that with Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominos or his long solo career.
After opening with two 1970s selections from Robertson (which were buoyed by Paul Carrack's organ), Clapton got his blues mojo working, with the chestnut "Key to the Highway" (which he has recorded a few times) and Willie Dixon's "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man."
Then Clapton found a rhythmic groove with a funky island vibe, a tasty intro to "I Shot the Sheriff," the Bob Marley tune that Clapton transformed into a 1974 hit. There was palpable passion in Clapton's voice and obvious emotion in his usually placid face. When he started his guitar solo, it was like a gun fired in the still of the night. He found a stinging sound and then a very rhythmic but emotional groove. Later he cut loose with a long rising passage, his guitar eventually crying and moaning. He earned a standing ovation for what was easily the night's high point.
A five-selection sit-down, acoustic set showcased a couple of blues nuggets, a Tulsa shuffle treatment of J.J. Cale's "Call Me the Breeze" and then two of Clapton's biggest hits — his familiar laid-back reimagining of "Layla," which misses the pleading urgency of the 1970 epic electric version, and a wistful "Tears in Heaven," featuring Carrack playing an organ line of Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" and Clapton eschewing a guitar solo.
Clapton and his band rocked out with his 1987 Tina Turner duet "Tearing Us Apart," the not-heavy-as-Cream "Crossroad Blues" (with the guitarist bending it like B.B. King) and the crowd-pleasing "Cocaine."
This 110-minute performance was not as triumphant as the guitar hero's terrific and inspired St. Paul shows in 2004 and '06 but more rewarding than his 2009 effort with Steve Winwood, his ex-Blind Faith bandmate.
The encore of Joe Cocker's "High Time We Went" was odd, with Carrack (the voice of hits by Ace, Squeeze and Mike + the Mechanics) singing lead and generous solo space given to organist Carrack, guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, pianist Chris Stainton (who co-wrote the song) and opening act Jimmie Vaughan but not much for Clapton. Apparently, the professor felt compelled to share the spotlight with his colleagues.