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Jeff Beck, left, salutes Eric Clapton at the end of a song during a concert at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Feb. 21, 2010.
Jeff Beck, left, salutes Eric Clapton at the end of a song during a concert at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Feb. 21, 2010.

In Concert

More is less from Clapton and Beck Add to ...

Eric Clapton & Jeff Beck

  • At the Air Canada Centre
  • In Toronto on Sunday

Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck played in the same band (the Yardbirds), but not together. In some people's minds, that fact has stood like a promissory note, demanding payoff in some kind of joint project by these guitar heroes.

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Never mind that they are dissimilar in almost every way.

On second thought, let's take careful stock of those differences, which may explain why Sunday's Beck-Clapton matchup was such a gigantic fizzle.

The kid: That was Beck, looking just like he did in '68 but wrinklier, playing his solo set as if it were his first big gig. He opened with a virtuoso jam that put me in mind of the proverbial kitchen sink, and returned frequently to high-dazzle mode. I don't recall so much bluster during his Massey Hall gig of some years ago. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to play as if you have something to prove, when you consider the alternative.

The codger: Clapton, who at 64 is the younger of the two, began his set on a kitchen chair, chugging out old-time blues numbers much as he did during his Robert Johnson tribute tour six years ago. Haggard and owlish behind his big dark frames, he looked as if he'd been roused off his front porch after years of inactivity. That really happened to Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, but they both came back with an element of grit that has been washed clean out of Clapton. He played the blues like the very best student in the class, everything careful and neat.

The sound: As usual, there seemed to be no limit to the sounds Beck could extract bare-handed from his guitar, which turned quite skronky during a few crunchy numbers that were to rock music as bebop is to jazz. Clapton was more inclined to stick to a single sweet option, both on acoustic and electric guitars.

Left hand versus right: Clapton's bent notes and vibrato all came from the left hand. Beck did all that with his whammy bar, which was hardly ever still. Clapton's technique was the more physically demanding: You have to do a lot of yanking and flailing to get those sounds on the fretboard. But, somehow, they didn't deliver a lot of punch. Beck's more subtle manipulations of his bar could be quite raw in effect, as for example in the mind-bending middle section of his cover of the Beatles's A Day in the Life.

The singing tone: When he wasn't tearing up the fretboard, Beck played beautiful long melodies, again relying on his whammy bar to give the tone the slight variances typical of a singing voice. Unfortunately, his showpieces in this line were Puccini's Nessun dorma and Henry Mancini's Moon River, both played with orchestra, both sounding like abrupt left turns that brought him smack into the middle of the road.

The leap of faith: That's what you needed to hear any urgency or hunger in Clapton's sauntering acoustic version of Layla, his biggest hit. "You've got me on my knees," he sang quite listlessly, as if that position were available only in theory.

The big match-up: There's a reason most bands have only one lead guitar, and Clapton saw the logic, moving into rhythm-guitar mode for most of his joint set with Beck.

In return, Beck subdued his proggish tendencies and played blues rock for the rest of the night (except for Moon River). Muddy Waters's You Need Love drew into sharp focus everything that was wrong with this picture: the blandness of Clapton's singing, the recreational quality of the alternating solos from both men, and the feeling that the people on stage were thinking about the clock.

The show was nearly three hours old before Beck and Clapton attempted a real duet, and that was over in less than a minute. I guess they just weren't into it and, by then, neither was I.

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