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On the Road with Clapton

Eric Clapton’s former guitar tech recounts four intimate highlights of his 30-year career with Slowhand.

After a long and amazing career as Eric Clapton’s guitar tech, which sadly ended in 2009, I’m often asked about my favorite moments, shows, events, etc. There are so many great memories to recount—each is amazing in its own way, someday I will write a book! Until then, here are some things that I have not revisited for a long time. Feel free to add requests in the comments section for things you’d like to hear about from a behind-the-scenes perspective.

Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Bash at Madison Square Garden, 1993
Dylan, George Harrison, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young—so many of my heroes in one room. It was so surreal just being at rehearsals for this show. Everyone who came through the room was awesome in their own way, you couldn’t move without running into a legend: Chrissie Hynde, John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Eddie Vedder, Ron Wood, Lou Reed, Booker T., Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, G.E. Smith, Jim Keltner, and of course that chap Clapton, too.

It was a fascinating experience just being in the same room as that lot, and listening to rehearsals was quite a trip. But when we moved it over to MSG and set it all up, even though I knew what was coming next come show time, it still blew me away. One of the best concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on. I remember getting Eric picks made that said, “Bob’s Bash @ MSG” and some special picks for Bob that said, “It Ain’t Me Babe” on one side and “It Is Babe Isn’t It?” on the other. I’ve watched some of it on YouTube recently to refresh my memory, and as Neil Young called it, it was a “Bobfest” to be sure.

24 Nights at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1991
At the time of writing this, I have done over 120 shows at that hallowed venue! But people often ask me about this amazing set of shows. It was 24 nights: six small band, six “big” band, six blues, and six orchestra. For this amazing run, Eric and his then manager, Roger Forrester, had come up with a structure where as the first six shows were being played, we’d be rehearsing the next segment during the day. So as he performed with the four-piece band, we’d rehearse with the full band during the day. When the full band took over at night, we’d rehearse the blues stuff during the day with a different band and all the special guests.

The final set was with the orchestra, which rehearsed in the Royal College of Music, conveniently situated behind the Royal Albert Hall. This was a standout for me. My dear pal, sadly no longer with us, Michael Kamen, was at the helm of the National Philharmonic Orchestra—a monster unit in itself—and add in Eric and a few of his bandmates and there was some really magical stuff. It was the most surreal experience to be able to walk around the players and pause and take it in. Standing beside four double bass players as they bow their instruments opens up vibrations you never knew were there. Sitting beside the various cellos and violin sections was so emotional; it touched my heart and gave me a greater respect for the unamplified world.

Watch Clapton play “Edge of Darkness” with the National Philharmonic Orchestra

It was quite frantic for the crew sometimes. Eric’s amp had to be completely isolated, and due to the very delicate ears of some of the orchestra members, he had just a monitor wedge that played his guitar back at very low volumes. One of the older violin players said to me, “That thing’s too bloody loud for me, mate! Can you shift it?” I said jokingly, “No sir, I can’t, because that gentleman on the opposite side of you just gave me $20 to move it to this side!” Unbeknownst to me, the other player was the lead violinist and head of the orchestra, and the man who asked me to move it started going on at him. Of course, the leader was clueless and confused, and I thought it was funny!

For the guitar purists who attended, the blues night was probably the favorite: Eric teamed with Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, and Albert Collins. And although we’d done it in 1990 (18 nights), the ’91 stuff was even more amazing.

Cream Reunion Rehearsals and Gigs, 2005
We’d heard it talked about for years, and finally it was going to happen: the Cream reunion. The first time I’d ever heard Eric live was when I was but a very young lad and Cream opened for Long John Baldry in Glasgow. Many moons later, my dreams were coming true—Ginger, Jack, and Eric onstage live! They played three songs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993, but here was Cream in full swing, starting at the very place where they’d finally called it a day in ’69: the Royal Albert Hall.

We rehearsed way out of London for space, peace, fewer interruptions, and just being able to get more work done. I took a big chance and put up Eric’s old Marshall stack the first day—with his ’57 Twins lurking close by—thinking he’ll love it, or he’ll hate it. His comments were something like, “What the heck is all this, then?” To which I replied, “It’s a Marshall stack man, thought you might want to try it out … give it a go!?” To which he replied, “Get rid of it and set up my Twin, please!” I dangled his Les Pauls in front of him, too, but Strats and Twins were the weapons of choice for this reunion! We had a special steel-framed shelf made so that we could have a Fender Tweed Twin stack, and he would turn the spare on at the climax of the show for some extra oomph.

Rehearsals were a blast, although one could feel old tensions in the air on occasion, after all, they were 36 years older. There were no perms or hand-painted psychedelic guitars and drums or walls of amps, but they sounded just the same and the playing was fantastic. Hearing Ginger Baker’s drumming again was worth the admission alone! I’ll always remember when they went into “Sunshine of Your Love.” I’d heard a lot of great drummers play it over the years, but in my humble opinion, the only other person I’d ever heard get it right, like the record, was a drum tech called Yardsyboy long ago at rehearsals.

The response from the audience was breathtaking. I remember in London, a bunch of young American guys hooting at me, “Come on dude! Where’s the Marshalls and Les Pauls?” and I thought to myself, “They were all born years after the band split!” and it made me laugh. When we went to Madison Square Garden with it, the roar of the crowd was even louder. Cream in New York at the Garden—don’t get much better than that! We played two great sets of shows on either side of the Atlantic, then that was it, it appears forever.

In all my time touring and recording, I hardly ever asked for autographs (though sometimes I wish I had!) but I have a framed, limited-edition print of Disraeli Gears signed by Ginger, Jack, and Eric. It was a Creamtastic time in my life!

Curtis Mayfield Memorial, 2000
I got the call from Eric that he was going to play at a church memorial service for the late Curtis Mayfield, which turned out to be a very, very sad but, in its own way, uplifting day.

The legendary Mayfield had passed away after many serious health battles, and there was to be a musical memorial service for him at a church called First AME in L.A. We set up as quietly as possible, and backed the volume off a bit from Eric’s stage volume setting on his amp due to the location and occasion. I’d done some odd, one-of-a-kind gigs with my boss over the years, but I never thought I’d be doing a gig in a beautiful church in East L.A. for a man whose music influenced my life in its own way.

It was an emotional day for the Mayfield family and all who attended: The Impressions, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, Eric, and the choir. Greg Phillinganes and Nathan East, both from Eric’s bands, also played that day along with my old pal Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter and Narada Michael Walden on drums. It was quite a send-off for a true legend and one of the all-time truly great artists.

I had listened to Curtis Mayfield nearly all my life, having been turned on to (and blown away by) The Impressions at a very young age. Many years later, another dream would come true for me when Eric invited them on tour with him, sans Curtis of course. His final masterpiece, New World Order is an awesome record—recorded with great difficulty, I am told—due to his ailing health. '”Here But I'm Gone'' is one of the finest of the many amazing songs he wrote, and one that I personally could listen to over and over—and I often do.

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