Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival -- Evening One: Concert Review

Crossroads Guitar - H - 2013
Madison Square Garden was transformed into the world's biggest juke joint for this glorious evening of guitar-filled rock and blues.

Nearly three dozen guitar virtuosos perform in a two-part Madison Square Garden benefit concert.

One can only imagine how copies of Guitar Hero must get sold after Eric Clapton holds one of his periodic Crossroad Guitar Festival events. This year’s fourth edition -- being presented in two parts on successive evenings -- featured a stellar lineup of nearly 30 guitar-slinging virtuosos who clearly were jazzed to be in one another’s company.

Held to benefit Crossroads Center, a drug treatment and education facility in Antigua founded by Clapton, the concerts have become a mecca for blues and rock fans who are given the rare opportunity to see their favorites jamming together. Performers ranged in age from 87 (B.B. King) to 14 (Buddy Guy protege Quinn Sullivan, clearly a phenomenon). Sadly, the distaff side was almost completely unrepresented, with only a brief appearance by singer Alice Smith.

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At Friday night’s opener, egos clearly had been left at the door. Even before the announced start time and while people were still finding their seats, Clapton started off the show with a mellow half-hour acoustic set featuring such hits as “Tears in Heaven” and “Wonderful Tonight.” In the first of what would be numerous collaborations throughout the night, he was joined by Andy Fairweather Low and Vince Gill, the latter lending his harmonies to a rollicking version of “Lay Down Sally.”

Nearly every set featured this type of musical collegiality. Booker T. was joined by original MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper, Matt Murphy, Blake Mills, Keb Mo and Albert Lee for classics like “Green Onions,” which the organist described as “a little tune that Steve Cropper and I did back in Memphis, Tennessee.” After Robert Cray performed several numbers highlighting his fluid, unflashy playing, he was joined by King, who sang “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Sweet 16” with his trademark exuberance that is undimmed by age. Clapton eventually wandered in for a rousing “Every Day I Have the Blues.”

Doyle Brahmall II‘s charged set added a hard-rocking element to the evening, abetted by Citizen Cope’s soulful vocals and Gary Clark Jr.’s sizzling guitar. Kurt Rosenwinkel offered generous stage time to Allan Hollsworth’s trippy jazz fusion solos before being joined by Clapton for a couple of numbers. John Mayer, telling the crowd, “It’s nice to see you again,” led his band through a short set before being joined by Keith Urban.

“I come tonight not only as a friend of John’s but also as a very good friend of Bill W.,” said the country star, before joining Mayer on a full-throttle version of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” climaxing with a close-knit duet in which their guitars were so close together they nearly touched.

Buddy Guy brought his trademark brand of Chicago electric blues to the stage, his incendiary playing accompanied by playful bumping-and-grinding and such pronouncements as “I wanna play so funky you can smell it!” He also enlisted the crowd to sing the chorus for his amusingly lascivious number “Someone Else Is Slippin’.”

The Allman Brothers closed the show with an extended set -- as if they have any other kind -- featuring jam-filled versions of staples like “Ain’t My Cross to Bear” and “Whipping Post” and support from Taj Mahal and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas.  Clapton later took the lead on his own “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” from his Derek and the Dominos days, in which he delightedly traded solos with Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks.

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There wasn’t any downtime in the show lasting nearly five hours. During set changes, a small second stage provided the opportunity for such disparate players as Earl Klugh, slide guitarist Sonny Landrath and Gary Clark Jr. to perform brief solo performances. Artist introductions were delivered by an effusive Dan Aykroyd, who also took the opportunity to don his Blues Brothers sunglasses and, accompanied by Keb Mo on guitar, sing Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Working.”

Despite the arena’s vast setting, the evening had an intimate air thanks in part to the giant video screens that more often provided video close-ups of the performers’ flying fingers than their faces. “Isn’t this great?” Aykroyd enthused. “It feels like we’re all sitting in a juke joint in Mississippi!”

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