Crossroads Guitar Festival: Madison Square Garden, New York

Two nights. Nine-and-a-half hours. Thirty-three guitar players (more or less). Ninety-one songs.

NO MATTER HOW you count it, there was a whole lot of music this weekend at Eric Clapton’s fourth Crossroads Guitar Festival, held for the first time in New York at Madison Square Garden. The styles represented were heavy on the blues, but encompassed jazz, country, and straight-ahead rock, and the ages spanned from Buddy Guy’s 14-year-old protege, Quinn Sullivan, up to 87-year-old B.B. King. If such a line-up inevitably makes for an uneven ride, the shows provided some unforgettable highlights and built to a truly thrilling crescendo.

The event was a benefit for the Crossroads Center drug rehabilitation clinic in Antigua, a facility Clapton began in the 1990s near his home on the island. The first Crossroads Guitar Festival was held on two nights in Dallas in 2004, followed by one-day concerts in Chicago in 2007 and 2010. All were filmed, and royalties from the DVD sales have gone to the center; between the concerts and a series of guitar auctions, Clapton has raised about $20 million, which helps subsidize patients who cannot afford the clinic’s $24,000 fee for a month’s treatment.

Friday’s concert took a while to build up energy. Clapton began the show with an acoustic set, setting a charming if a bit sleepy tone, opening with Charles Brown’s ‘Drifting Blues’ and offering a light-reggae version of ‘Tears in Heaven’. Sets that followed, fronted by Booker T. and Robert Cray, were simply too top-heavy with guitarists – at one point in Booker T’s set, there were six players trading leads on ‘Green Onions’, which made it hard for anyone to make much of an impression. Hot-shot newcomer Gary Clark, Jr. lit up the room with a brief solo set, playing a mesmerizing, droning blues groove while seated behind a kick-drum, one-man-band style.

Timing ran with military precision; featured acts were given four or five songs, while others played one- or two-song mini-sets while the gear was being changed. There was rarely so much as a pause between artists, other than some perfunctory introductions by the weekend’s MC, Dan Aykroyd.

The performances were impressive if largely unexciting, but kicked into higher gear when Keith Urban joined John Mayer on a rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. It was one of Mayer’s first appearances since he had to cancel a tour last year for a recurrent throat problem; “it’s nice to see you again,” he said when he took the stage. Buddy Guy followed with a characteristically more-is-more set; he and young Sullivan were joined by “sacred steel” virtuoso Robert Randolph in a 25-minute guitar blitzkrieg.

The Allman Brothers Band closed Friday’s show with a solid hour-long set, heavy on classics like ‘Not My Cross to Bear’ and ‘Statesboro Blues’, on which they were joined by Taj Mahal and members of Los Lobos. Clapton and the Allmans teamed up for a hard-charging ‘Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad’, with Derek Trucks on the actual guitar Duane Allman played when he recorded the track with Clapton for the Derek & the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in 1970. At the stroke of midnight, a rumbling bass line signaled the mother of all rock epics, and the night closed with a blistering take on ‘Whipping Post’.

Saturday night’s show was the keeper, offering the most memorable moments in terms of pure musicianship and star power. Where the first show often piled on too many players at once, Saturday kept pretty tightly to a band with a single guest at a time, which allowed everyone to stretch out and show their stuff. It made for some remarkable combinations – a slide showdown between Trucks and Louisiana guitar wizard Sonny Landreth, or Vince Gill, Urban, and country heavyweight Albert Lee trading high-flying roadhouse licks. The eternally underrated Los Lobos played a glorious set, with an irresistible cumbia adding the festival’s one note of international sounds.

In an impressive scheduling feat, Friday’s featured acts were Saturday’s interstitials, with brief yet powerful acoustic sets from Gregg Allman, Warren Hayes, and Trucks and from Keb’ Mo and Taj Mahal. Jeff Beck, who did not appear on Friday, turned in a typically masterful performance, both elegant and pyrotechnic.

There was no introduction for the finale. The lights came up and there was Keith Richards standing next to Clapton. In the vaudeville style he has assumed in his later days, Richards drawled, “Eric’s done a wonderful job putting this whole thing together, so let’s give the man the clap!” They then lit into a loose and glorious version of ‘Key to the Highway’, with Richards in better voice and spirit than on recent Rolling Stones dates, followed by a joyful blast through Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Rock and Roller’.

Next up was a rare appearance by Robbie Robertson, who started off not with a reprise of ‘Further On Up the Road’, his famed duet with Clapton at The Last Waltz, but with his own recent ‘He Don’t Live Here No More’. Robertson’s voice has grown a bit raspier and thinner, though it felt especially emotional on ‘I Shall Be Released’, a song he dedicated to the “remembrance of some dear old friends”.

Clapton, whose own playing had remained reserved and overly deferential during the two nights, finally took off the gloves after those guest appearances. In his own four-song set, he unleashed solos of simmering, pristine beauty – it’s as if he now needs to set himself a challenge to inspire the full force of his gift. On ‘Got to Get Better in a Little While’, he launched into an atypical, funky wah-wah solo, and if ‘Crossroads’ has been slowed down from its Cream-era speed to a chugging shuffle, it still draws out some of his most passionate playing.

During a closing ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, stacks of amps were rolled out and set up on the stage, so it was no surprise that when the song finished, guitarists of all age, size, and shape took to the stage. Clapton’s bit went into Joe Cocker’s ‘High Time We Went’ (a bit of an odd choice), and no less than twenty guitarists took solos, straight down the line from Buddy Guy on one end to Vince Gill on the other, all watching each other and grinning like kids.

At the beginning of Saturday’s show, Clapton said “there’s always talk of doing another (festival), but this could be it” – though at the concert’s end, he signed off with “See you in three years!” While it’s not fair to criticize the musicians selected without knowing who was invited, it would be nice if the next Crossroads show included even a single female guitarist (it was slightly embarrassing when Susan Tedeschi sang with Los Lobos without the courtesy of letting her play), and also to bring in some musicians a little younger who are outside the traditional blues orientation (obvious choices include Jack White, Dan Auerbach, Wilco’s Nels Cline, or the guitarists in My Morning Jacket). But for both the audience and the musicians involved, these two nights reinforced the power and possibilities, the history and future of one instrument with six strings that changed the world.

© Alan Light, April 2013

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