By Brian Wise. ‘Suddenly a great evening became brilliant and a good festival became greater – and often brilliant.’
ERIC CLAPTON’S CROSSROADS GUITAR FESTIVAL
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, NEW YORK
FRIDAY APRIL 12 & SATURDAY APRIL 13, 2013
“The problem with Eric Clapton is that he is a gentleman rocker,” explained another guitarist named Eric – Eric Ambel of the Del Lords – in response to my observation that the first night of the Crossroads Festival did not quite meet my expectations. “You can be one or the other but not both.”
Luckily, Clapton has some high profile friends who are definitely not ‘gentlemen’ rockers – like Keith Richards, who turned up announced on the second night, for a terrific version of ‘Key To The Highway’ and an incendiary one of Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Rock and Roller.’
This brief but inspiring cameo, met by a standing ovation before and after, put a rocket under Clapton, whose own set later on was nothing sort of brilliant.
Challenged by an even bigger name than his own, he rose to the occasion and not only proved his reputation was still in tact but turned a festival from good into great. It is probably the sort of company that Clapton needs to keep more often!
Suddenly a great evening became brilliant and a good festival became great – and often brilliant.
Staged every three years in a different location Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival was established to benefit The Crossroads Centre, Antigua, founded by Eric Clapton in 1997. Created to provide quality, affordable treatment for alcohol and other drug dependencies. For this fourth event, Clapton was as usual able to call on some high profile friends to help him out. The intentions are undoubtedly marvellous; however, sometimes you do not necessarily want all of your friends to come to your party.
Held in the historic Madison Square Garden Arena (billed as the ‘world’s most famous arena’) expectations were extremely high given the star-studded line-up and people had flown in from all over. The guys sitting to my left were from Norway, the ones on my right from Japan. That’s right – guys – and there were a lot of them.
Nearly a third of Friday’s show had included material from Earl Klugh, Citizen Cope, Kurt Rosenwinkel and John Mayer (four songs), with the highlight coming at the end with the Allman Brothers Band and Clapton, Taj Mahal and David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos guesting. When one of the high points is a version of The Beatles’ ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ by John Mayer and Keith Urban you know the bar has not been set nearly high enough! (To be fair, some of the younger members of the audience said it was the best show they had ever seen).
Apart from Alice Smith singing some backing vocals for Doyle Bramhall, strangely there were also no women on stage. It was very much a gentleman rocker’s domain; in fact, ridiculously so.
Saturday’s show started in an entirely different fashion with some blistering guitar from Sonny Landreth with Derek Trucks as guest. This set the scene beautifully. Their rendition of ‘Congo Square’ was as good as I have ever heard it. With a large main rotating stage and smaller stages either side, the music hardly stopped. Tonight, if you wanted a break you might miss something special (the previous night you needed a break).
An acoustic set from Doyle Bramhall II, during which he sang his father’s song ‘Change It’, written for Stevie Ray Vaughan was appropriately followed by Jimmie Vaughan (with Lou Ann Barton on two songs).
A seemingly nervous Blake Mills teamed with Derek Trucks on a very tasteful version of ‘Save The Last Dance For Me.’ Some inattentive audience members around me who misheard Dan Ackroyd’s introduction were convinced that Mills was in fact Ronnie Milsap (a compliment, I believe to the young singer/guitarist).
Los Lobos enlisted Susan Tedeschi, Robert Cray and then Clapton on a set that included ‘Burn It Down,’ ‘Cumbia’ and a powerful version of ‘Tin Can Trust.’ Warren Haynes, Gregg Allman and Derek Trucks delivered ‘Old Friend,’ ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’ and a great ‘Midnight Rider.
Even Vince Gill, who remarked that his invitation to the event was one of the highlights of his life, rocked out and employed Albert Lee and Keith Urban as guest guitarist. Urban acquitted himself well again on a version of ‘Tumbling Dice.’
Keb Mo’ and Taj Mahal’s acoustic segment on the right side of stage included Robert Johnson’s ‘Walkin’ Blues’ with Taj extemporising the lyrics, ‘Diving Duck Blues’ and ‘Who’s Loving You Tonight’ prior to some gutsy electric blues from Gary Clark Jr and his band.
Jeff Beck then put in a stunner on four numbers that included some searing vocals from Beth Hart and great bass playing by young Australian Tal Wilkenfeld on ‘Ain’t Superstitious’ and ‘Going Down.’
Buddy Guy then took up acoustic guitar on the side stage ’74 Years Young’ and confessed that he had actually recorded it two years ago and he was now ’76 Years Young.’ As is his tendency he then played someone else’s songs but this time it was a full version of John Lee Hooker’s ‘I’m In the Mood,’ perhaps to underline the lineage. As Dan Ackroyd noted, Guy is one of the last of the true originals. Add to that is the fact that I cannot recall ever seeing Guy play acoustic in concert, so it was a nice change.
The evening was set for something special and the arrival of Keith Richards literally brought the audience to its feet. While Clapton took the lead for a rollicking ‘Key To The Highway,’ Richards took the lead for ‘Sweet Little Rock and Roller’ and not only has he got Chuck Berry’s guitar licks down perfectly he was in fine voice. (I reckon an entire Keith Richards’ show might be even more interesting and enjoyable than seeing The Stones).
Richards left the stage as somewhat of a conquering hero but Clapton met the challenge to maintain the momentum by introducing Robbie Robertson who performed ‘He Don’t Live Here Anymore’ and ‘I Shall be Released’ (which he dedicated to the memory of missing friends). While his voice seemed stronger than on his recent album, Robertson’s guitar playing is as nimble as ever.
An old mate of Clapton’s, Andy Fairweather Low, delivered an impassioned ‘Gin House’ and then it was time for the boss of the show to close the evening.
After the first night it was more than a pleasant surprise to see and hear Clapton so fired up. He opened with a hard-hitting version of ‘Got To Get Better in A Little While,’ followed by Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’ and an epic ‘Little Queen of Spades’ with extended solos from Chris Stainton on keyboards, Doyle Bramhall and Clapton himself. He capped it off with a rousing ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ It was a short but incredibly impressive set that showed Clapton’s continued mastery of his instrument.
‘See you in three years!’ announced Clapton before an encore of ‘High Time We Went’ in which he was joined by all the guests (minus Keith) who took turns soloing. It capped off an evening with a near perfect dynamic, excellent set list and some stunning performances. (Thank goodness I bought tickets to both nights!).
After just fifteen minutes short of five hours the show ended and Clapton sought out Buddy Guy on stage. A young Blake Mills stood momentarily alone as guitarists milled around him; he looked a little stunned and probably, like the rest of us, was savouring what had just occurred and realising just how special it was.