Put the Boot In: Eric Clapton – Live at Budokan 2023 – Trying To Get The Music Right

by | Jun 14, 2023 | 0 comments

On April 24th, 2023 the final evening of a six-night residency at the legendary Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, Japan, Eric Clapton and his band capped off a stellar residency of music. Supported by his band of long time mates comprised of Nathan East/bass, Sonny Emory/drums, Doyle Bramhall II/guitar, Chris Stainton/keyboards, Paul Carrack/organ and backing singers, Katie Kisson and Sharon White, Eric let his entire band shine as he offered a bluesy, yet diverse cross section of his career to the assembled crowd. 

The famed and octagon shaped Budokan, is a favorite venue of Clapton’s and he thanked the crowd a number of times over the course of the weeks while also expressing his enjoy at playing for them. The performance on April 21st had been Clapton’s 100th gig at the venue.
Armed with a light wood grain signature Stratocaster, Eric looked the part and played strong at age 78. While the setlists for the shows had remained static, by this final evening everything was played with a practiced freedom resulting in supreme versions of all the songs. 

A clear and well balanced field recording has circulated since the performances, and that document is spinning in the rock room today. Eric Clapton, Budokan Night Six is purported to be the best sounding source. For the intrepid rock geek, there is also audience shot footage that can be found with a quick search of the normal internet hang outs

Opening the show with a brand new instrumental called “Blue Rainbow,” the mood was set. Reminiscent of some of Clapton’s past instrumental work on the Rush soundtrack, Clapton delicately explored a lofty azure theme with brisk soloing that soared from one end of the song’s melody to the other. A mid song key change exploded into a series of diverse three dimensional guitar riffs by E.C.. 

Midway through the instrumental, Bramhall and Clapton touch fingers for just a moment, quoting a delicate dual melody line, before diverting back to their respective paths. Clapton breaks through the clouds with a series of licks that illuminate the song and take it into the stratosphere before bringing the song to a proper conclusion. 

With just a small pause, a wah-wah drenched rendition of “Pretending” cracks open the performance with gritty vocals and edgy soloing by Eric. The driving rhythm of one of Clapton’s contemporary songs is just the right tonic to get the evening going. Eric’s solo screams through the venue, still resonant and powerful. 

The following double barrel shot of blues lets the crowd know the Eric has settled in and is ready to play. Both “Key to the Highway,” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” change the regal Budokan into a musty juke joint if only for a few moments. “Key to the Highway” turns over the ignition and features prime solos by Bramhall and Stainton before being topped off with a high octane Clapton rip through the song’s changes. 

Word had spread after the conclusion of the residency that the versions of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sherriff” were particularly exciting. The version played on the final night was one to be reckoned with. The circulating recording confirms this as the song surpassed nine minutes and was full of enthusiastic jamming. Clapton begins the song with some brush stroke riffing that soon becomes a sneaky vamp, highlighted by Nathan East’s thick “one drop” bass variations. 

After singing the opening verses, at five minutes in Clapton brings the band down to a light ska-tinged groove. The ambiance of the Budokan comes across clearly on the recording as Clapton plays a series of delicate picked variations on the “Sherriff” theme. The band plays like a stone across salty water, a waft of smoke carried across the sand. Clapton responds in kind.
Soon, Clapton and East volley melodic ideas before Clapton signals a return to the song proper. The band picks up the intensity and Clapton unleashes a torrent of fiery riffs that culminate in an explosive climax. 

Clapton’s solos throughout the evening are built upon the strong rhythmic foundation of East and Emory and are expressed with a creative tension that culminates in Clapton’s expressive playing from the fretboard. A master at work, his skills honed by time, his vocals aged to perfection. 

 In what amounts to an opening electric set, E.C. expresses his sincere appreciation to the Japanese crowd before sitting down for an unplugged segment. Robert Johnson’s “Kindhearted Woman” is played with a reverence and airy aesthetic, the first in what would be three Johnson numbers on the evening. 

“Call Me the Breeze” is performed like a funky headwind as Clapton and the band blow through town. The groove is transparent and the vibe light. The band effortlessly glides through a dynamic and percussive tribute to Clapton’s friend Cale. A highlight performance.

“Sam Hall,” is a special choice, the British folk song about a criminal who has been sentenced to death. On previous evenings of the run, the song was dedicated to Jeff Beck. Also covered by Richard Thompson, Clapton plays a rustic reading of an idiom that he is not often associated with. His singing tender and the reading sincere. 

In what could be considered a run of the mill “greatest hits” series to conclude the show, is in reality an emotional and expressive second half of the performance. Following an poignant acoustic reading of “Tears in Heaven,” to conclude the acoustic portion, Clapton opened the second set with a big version of his George Harrison collaboration, “Badge.” The next three songs are classics, and Clapton played each with freshness and aplomb.
An on-stage standard of Clapton’s long career, his soloing in “Badge” was accurate and everything a listener could hope for. “Wonderful Tonight, ” was more of the same, allowing the crowd to reminisce and for the band to play to their memories. 

A distorted solo prelude to “Crossroads,” sets the stage for a hard and road practiced version. Then, an expansive ten plus minute reading of Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades” allows the band to reveal their hands with excellent soloing by Bramhall, Stainton and Carrack. 

The song begins with over a full minute of classic Clapton blues explorations before the first verse.
The band brings it way down for the vocals, and Clapton’s sings it like he’s lived it. Beat up Fender in one hand, bullet mic in the other, he glances over with one eye closed at the dark eyed queen leaning against the jukebox. After crushing solos by his bandmates, Clapton, takes things over the edge with intensely mournful playing while collecting his winnings and heading for the door. 

An eager version of “Cocaine” concludes the main set and once again spotlights a full band effort rather than just Clapton doing the heavy lifting.
The band then finishes the show and the residency with a rocking “High Time We Went,” a Joe Cocker/Chris Stainton co-write from Joe’s 1972 Cocker record. Paul Carrack takes the lead vocals on a song the recalls Clapton’s sideman days with Delaney and Bonnie’s band. 

Eric Clapton and his band’s April 2023 residency at the Budokan illustrates, that like his idol, B.B. King, Eric Clapton will continue to peddle his stringed wares around the world for those who still want to listen. He is the elder statesman of guitar, a wise sage, and a bluesman by trade. He has grown into his given name of “Slowhand,” and continues take his time while performing his blues.

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