Clapton’s Crossroads Fest Showcases Heavy-Hitting Six-Stringers
Guitar icon Eric Clapton cleaned up and got sober in the 1980s, and he’s been paying it forward ever since. In 2004, Clapton launched his Crossroads Guitar Festival, which raises money for Crossroads Centre, a 36-bed drug and alcohol treatment facility on the Caribbean island of Antigua, where he owns two estates. As he wrote in his 2007 memoir, Clapton: The Autobiography, “In order to stay sober, I had to help others get sober.”
For his fourth Crossroads Guitar Festival, held April 12–13 at Madison Square Garden, Clapton gathered an impressive crew of fellow six-stringers, from elder bluesmen like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal to up-and-coming guitar slingers like 14-year-old chopsmeister Quinn Sullivan, Gary Clark Jr. and slide guitar ace Blake Mills. The lineup also included established rock and blues guitar stars Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Robert Cray, Keb Mo, Jimmie Vaughan and Derek Trucks along with country pickers Vince Gill and Keith Urban.
Jazz was represented by the smooth, nylon-string stylings of Earl Klugh and the intervallic leaps and legato flurries of Kurt Rosenwinkel (appearing with special guest Allan Holdsworth), who provided some rare non-pentatonic moments in this paean to the 12-bar blues.
With “Saturday Night Live” alumnus and Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd acting as emcee during both nights, introducing each act with evangelic zeal and well-informed rapid patter, the five-hour-plus shows provided plenty of fretboard frolics for guitar aficionados and blues-hungry fans alike.
The first night kicked off with an acoustic set by the celebrated host, who appeared with lefty Stratocaster player Doyle Bramhall II along with Gill and Andy Fairweather Low, supported by bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Jordan. Utility man Greg Leisz’s pedal steel playing was particularly effective on a poignant rendition of Clapton’s ballad “Tears In Heaven,” while his dobro work gave “Lay Down Sally” a countrified touch.
Organist Booker T. Jones revived the classic MG’s sound alongside guitarist Steve Cropper on soulful renditions of “Hip Hugger” and “Green Onions,” featuring guest guitarists Mills, Albert Lee and Matt “Guitar” Murphy. Keb Mo fronted the all-star group on a romp through Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which Jones and his MG’s cut with the formidable bluesman in 1967.
Cray provided some toe-curling licks during his set, which peaked with a searing, organ-fueled rendition of “Great Big Old House.” Blues ambassador B.B. King, who turned 87 last September, came out to exchange conversational licks with Cray on a rollicking version of “Let The Good Times Roll.” And while he has clearly aged (he only plays seated these days), King is still capable of manipulating his guitar, Lucille, with that same honey-sweet tone and those familiar string bends and signature hand vibrato that have influenced generations of blues, rock and jazz guitar players. Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan joined King and Cray (all four seated in deference to the elder statesman) on a shuffling “Every Day I Have The Blues.” The set revealed Slowhand’s firm command of the King vocabulary, which he fully demonstrated on his 2000 album with B.B., Driving With The King.
Following the all-star blues-soaked assemblage, slide guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth entertained the crowd with a stirring, unaccompanied interlude that had him alternately spanking the strings (à la Michael Hedges), playing ringing false harmonics and summoning up some nasty, distortion-laced slide tones. Bramhall, a former member (with Charlie Sexton) of the Texas-based Arc Angels, performed next with the band Citizen Cope and guest guitarist Clark on a set that ranged from mainstream pop to gospel-flavored jams to soulful psychedelia. On a reggae-flavored groove, Bramhall utilized his wah-wah pedal to good effect, reminiscent of Clapton’s work on “White Room” from his Cream days.
Austin-based guitarist Clark stepped out on a raw blitzkrieg through a droning rendition of Muddy Waters’ “She’s Alright” from the bluesman’s notorious, grunge-laden and fuzz-fueled 1968 album Electric Mud. With Bramhall on Strat and Clark on his cherry red Epiphone hollowbody, the two emerging guitar stars mingled like Clapton and Duane Allman at the peak of “Layla.”
Ernie Ball Crossroads contest winner Philip Sayce, a Welsh-born Strat strangler from Canada, showcased his incendiary Stevie Ray Vaughan-meets-Steve Vai chops on his aptly titled solo feature, “Streamroller.” Following Sayce’s amped-up onslaught of frantic fretboard fireworks, Klugh didn’t stand a chance with his subtlety and finesse. The adrenalized audience yawned through his renditions of the bossa nova classic “Chega De Saudade” and his own smooth jazz number “This Time,” recorded with Al Jarreau in 1993.
Rosenwinkel opened his set with his beguiling, waltz-time number “Heavenly Bodies,” then brought out fusion guitar hero Holdsworth for a blistering romp through “Gamma Band,” both tunes from the jazz guitar star’s 2012 album, Star Of Jupiter. Clapton joined Rosenwinkel for an evocative reading of the melancholy standard “If I Should Lose You,” then the two dug into Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues” with bluesy abandon. For Rosenwinkel, who harmonically can play circles around most everyone on the bill, it was a rare moment of indulging in an earthy shuffle blues, though he did nonchalantly double-time the tempo at will, as if driving in third gear.
Clark returned to perform a raucous one-man-band set on dobro while keeping time with his feet on bass drum and hi-hat. John Mayer and Urban (who proclaimed himself to be a friend of Bill W., a reference to his own journey through the 12-step rehabilitation program) came out next and nearly tore the roof off MSG with a powerhouse version of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” that peaked with the two screaming at each other on Stratocaster and Telecaster, respectively.
Seventy-six-year-old Guy showcased his young charges Robert Randolph, the virtuosic pedal steel player and jam band favorite who just signed a deal with Blue Note Records, and the baby-faced speedster Quinn Sullivan, a crowd fave. Together they wailed on Guy’s signature tune “Damn Right I Got The Blues,” featuring Randolph’s pedal steel licks imbued with wah-wah and Sullivan’s precise machine-gun picking. They also romped on Guy’s “Let The Door Knob Hit Ya,” and Guy culminated his portion of the show with an entertaining, good-humored rendition of Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues” that had the audience singing the refrain: “Someone else is steppin’ in.”
Aykroyd then reverted to his harmonica-playing Elwood Blues persona for a duet with Keb Mo on Waters’ “Got My Mojo Workin’” before the Allman Brothers Band hit the stage for their hourlong set, which featured the twin guitar attack of Gibson SG slidemeister Trucks and Les Paul endorsee Warren Haynes. Together they blew through familiar ABB fare like the gospel-tinged “Ain’t My Cross To Bear” and their anthemic take on Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” the latter featuring guest appearances from Los Lobos guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas and Taj Mahal on harmonica and vocals. Clapton joined the band for a spirited rendition of the Derek & the Dominoes tune “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” which had the host bearing down on his Strat with a vengeance. The Brothers brought their set, and this five-hour concert, to a rousing conclusion with the obligatory set-closer, “Whipping Post.” And with that, Clapton bade farewell to the crowd, saying, “See you in three years.” Can’t wait.