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When Eric Clapton throws a party, everyone comes.
That was the impression left by the second night of the Crossroads Guitar Festival, a two-part concert raising funds for the substance-abuse treatment center that he founded in the Caribbean. In addition to the previous evening’s stellar lineup, most of whom returned for encores, there were performances by Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson, and, oh yes, Keith Richards, who made an unannounced appearance. Needless to say, Madison Square Garden’s roof was raised.
It’s a testament to Clapton’s reputation and the worthiness of the cause that nearly everyone expressed gratitude for being given the chance to participate. “It’s great to be back in this room again,” said a grinning Richards. “Eric Clapton has done a wonderful job putting this together, so let’s give the man a clap.” He then joined Clapton and his band on the blues standard “Key to the Highway” and Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock ‘N Roller,” singing lead vocals in his gruff, weathered voice.
Although exuberance was the chief hallmark of this nearly five-hour show, there also was a twinge of sadness in the air. Robertson announced, “I’m going to do a song now in remembrance of some dear old friends” before delivering a moving rendition of “I Shall Be Released.” Doyle Bramhall II, accompanied by John Mayer, dedicated “Change It” to his father, who died a year ago. And in one of the show’s high points, the Allman Brothers Band’s Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Greg Allman (playing guitar, no less) performed a rare trio acoustic set that included Allman delivering a movingly plaintive lead vocal on “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
But it’s hard to stay sad for long with dozens of brilliant guitarists of all stripes playing their hearts out. As is the hallmark of these events, collaborations filled the air, with performers alternating between headlining their own sets and supporting others. Robert Cray and Clapton popped in for several numbers during the superb set by East Los Angeles’ Los Lobos. During Vince Gill’s set, Albert Lee contributed rapid-fire picking to “You Better Leave My Alone Alone” and Keith Urban handled lead vocals on a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” And Trucks — probably the shows’ MVP — seemed to be everywhere, including part of a galvanizing opening set by slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and a brief, acoustic one by rising star Blake Mills highlighted by “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
For all the high-volume electric blues on display — Gary Clark Jr. performed a blistering set with his band that well demonstrated why he’s become a critical darling — it was the short acoustic set by Keb Mo and Taj Mahal, in which they performed such delta blues classics as Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” with a stark, haunting power, that brought down the house.
“How ‘bout that?” asked Mahal when they finished. “That’s the blues, baby!”
As with the previous night, there was a disturbing paucity of female instrumentalists, with nary a femme guitar player in sight. Beck seemed determined to add estrogen to the evening in his riveting electric blues set, with his band including a female violinist and bass player. He later was joined by singer Beth Hart, who brought a Janis Joplin-style sexy swagger and powerhouse pipes to songs like “Goin’ Down.”
Clapton and his band closed the show with an hourlong set featuring Richards, Robertson and Andy Fairweather Low as guests. Roaring through such songs as “Crossroads,” “Got to Get Better in a Little While” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” Clapton delivered the fusillade of electric guitar solos that the audience had been waiting for all evening.
But it all paled in comparison to the amazing finale, in which about a dozen-and-a-half of the evening’s performers lined up in a row onstage, resembling the ultimate murderer’s row of guitarists. As the rhythm section pounded out a furious beat, they delivered solos one by one, all of them grinning like schoolboys as they waited their turn. It was a sight — and a roar of sound — never to be forgotten.
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