Eric Clapton spent a lot of time on stage at his two–night, 10-hour Crosroads Guitar Festival, held April 12-13 in Madison Square Garden. He opened the event with a five-song acoustic set on Friday and closed out Saturday with his band. In between, the host often became a most welcome guest. Strat in hand, Clapton traded licks with a wide range of the performers he had personally selected to be there. He also spent a lot of time smiling.
Slowhand smiled sitting next to B.B. King, Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray for “Every Day I Have the Blues “ as Vaughan ripped off a twisted, solo filled with jump blues feints and Chuck Berry jabs, and B.B. surprised everyone including the acolytes by his side as he played counterpoint, digging out some tasty new licks. Clapton smiled when he joined Los Lobos for a rip through their “Tin Can Trust.” He dug in deep for a couple of twisty, swing jazz tunes with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. He probably smiled widest when he joined the Allman Brothers Band for Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad.” The song ended with a long coda featuring Clapton and Derek Trucks weaving guitar nirvana, a moment made all the more special by the fact that Trucks was playing the very guitar Duane Allman had used on the original recording – his 1957 goldtop Les Paul.
“Eric likes having different people around to challenge and inspire him and I think that’s the first criteria of who he invites to Crossroads,” says Trucks.
This was the fourth Crossroads Festival, which have settled into an every-three year pattern. The events are fundraisers for the Crossroads Centre, a drug and alcohol rehab facility Clapton founded in Antigua in 1997. The first was in Dallas in 2004; the last two events were day-long festivals in a Chicago stadium.
There was nary a letdown throughout the two nights, though Clapton’s decision to have guests Robbie Robertson and Keith Richards each sing two songs with his group was odd. Richards electrified the crowd with his appearance and did a great job on “Key to the Highway,” but he charm faded a bit on Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock ‘N Roller.” As a singer, Robertson is a great guitarist, though he did manage a moving “I Shall Be Released,” dedicated to his deceased Band-mates.
Earlier, Jeff Beck led his group, which featured a violinist and bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, through a set of instrumental music before being joined by belter Beth Hart for a pair of songs, including “I Ain’t Superstitious,” which he recorded on his 1968 solo debut Truth. Buddy Guy was his magnetically manic self, joined by his 14-year-old prodigy Quinn Sullivan and pedal steel ace Robert Randolph. Country star Keith Urban lit up John Mayer’s excellent set on Friday and joined Vince Gill and Albert Lee Saturday for some super hot country picking. Urban played the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” with Mayer and the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” with Gill.
B.B. at Crossroads feeling the love of the crowd.
“I’m a sucker for the old guard and it really great seeing Jimmie Vaughan, B.B, Eric, and Robert Cray,” says Trucks. “I thought it was really conversational and B.B. played some stuff I hadn’t heard him do; he dug deeper than he does on an average night.”
Vince Gill said he especially enjoyed Trucks sit in with Sonny Landreth, a meeting of slide masters. “Each of them combines technique and emotion in a really unusual and remarkable way,” Gill says.
Haynes loved watching Beck, Clapton, Los Lobos and jazz guitarist Allan Holdsworth – “a guy so many of us guitarists have been inspired by” — and having Taj Mahal sit in with the Allman Brothers for “Statesboro Blues.” Taj’s 1968 version of the blues classic was the Duane Allman’s inspiration not only to learn the song, but to teach himself slide guitar. Crossroads’ finest moments revolve around such collaborations, and the simple fact that everyone plays better in the company of other standard bearers.
“Whipping Post” from Crossroads 2013:
With so many great guitarists marching on and off the stage, the most memorable performances came from those who could harness the energy of the event and dig into deeply emotional moments. Doyle Bramhall 2 channeled Albert King with Clapton and was riveting in his own set, which reached a fever pitch when singer Alice Smith sang the powerful emotive blues ballad “Cry.” His whole set was a searing psychedelic blues fest; his band was also joined by Citizen Cope and Gary Clark Jr., who appeared repeatedly, fronting his own band and playing a hard-driving solo set.
Clark burst into the public eye with this appearance at the 2010 Crossroads. This year’s surprise performers included jazz cat Rosenwinkel, who had Clapton join him for two songs and also backed Holdsworth for an intense, hard-driving “Gamma Band.” It took the guitarists a few minutes to find their way with each other before they turned the inward track inside out.
Derek Trucks with Duane’s 57 Goldtop, Warren Haynes, Eric Clapton.
Haynes and Trucks appeared with the Allman Brothers for their intense, set-closing Friday performance and returned Saturday for a three-song acoustic set with Gregg Allman, who mesmerized the arena with “Midnight Rider.” The acoustic sets on small side stages allowed the main stage to be turned over in between acts and provided a number of highlights, including: Guy proudly singing about being “76 years young”; Bramhall and John Mayer playing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Change It” (written by Bramhall’s father Doyle) on 12 strings; Taj Mahal and Keb Mo unleashing foot-stomping blues on a pair of steel guitars, and Blake Mills – another of this year’s under-the-radar performers – who played one song then was joined by Trucks for the 50s hit “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
“A friend was supposed to play that with me and couldn’t do it at the last minute,” Mills recalls. “I was kind of distraught and then I realized that 20 of the best guitarists in the world were down the hall. I had the nerve to ask Eric to play it with me and he considered it before suggesting Derek, who is one of my favorite players. That was a thrill – especially since the first song I played was an original that just bombed. As soon as I started playing, it was like I was in that horrible dream where you’re on stage at Madison Square Garden and realize you’re only wearing a towel. The whole experience was a dream with a little bit of nightmare thrown in. It was nice to have the cavalry coming.”
Mills was invited to the festival when Clapton heard his playing on a Natalie Manes song on Grey’s Anatomy. “I played slide on the end and Eric liked it and called Derek to see if it was him – which was a compliment enough,” Mills recalls. Clapton made some inquiries, found out Mills was the guitarist and sent the 26-year old guitarist a letter of invite. He was in the club.
Vince Gill, the country super picker who has played at all four Crossroads Festivals, remembers when he got invited the first time.
“Eric called and said, ‘Hello, this is Eric Clapton and I’ve got a question.’ I said, ‘Whatever the question, the answer is yes,’” Gill says. “This is the call you want to get. This is where you want to be.”