Review: Eric Clapton’s Epic Crossroads Guitar Festival

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Videos by American Songwriter

clapton keith richards crossroads

Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Allman Brothers Band, John Mayer, Keith Urban, Vince Gill and more swap guitar licks for a good cause

What do you get when you hand 30 or so guitarists a slew of beautiful guitars and put them on stage in front of thousands of guitar geek fans? In lesser hands you have the cruel punch line to a musician’s joke. But in guitar god Eric Clapton’s hands you have the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival, an aural feast of soaring, emotion-filled guitar pyrotechnics and memorable sing-along classics. And in the hands of each of the 30-plus guitarists who performed at the two-night event held at NYC’s Madison Square Garden, the guitar spoke many languages- jazz, rock, fusion, folk and of course, the foundation and starting point for many of them, blues.

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As host and organizer of the fourth edition of the festival, Clapton was content to lend backing support to most of the artists’ sets, before closing out the event with an hour-long set of his own, which featured a surprise appearance by Keith Richards. Clapton’s humble and gracious demeanor set the tone for all other performers. The show had a warm and down-home vibe throughout: no mean feat given the logistics of shuffling each performer on and off stage while making sure their gear was switched to ‘on.’ It was like peeking in on one long jam session, where friends old and new happily greeted each other with a flurry of singing pentatonic riffs and mind-blowing string bends.

A relaxed looking John Mayer commented to the crowd: “Something really happens when two guitar players get together. It’s super fun and super awesome.” His 25-minute set was a crowd-pleaser. ‘Queen of California’ featured a nice fingerpicked electric guitar solo by Mayer’s touring guitarist Zane Carney followed by a beautiful Greg Leisz pedal steel solo and a thumb-picked solo by Mayer.

From young to old, from men to . . . well, mostly men, the collaborative highlights from night one were too numerous to include all – a hits-driven opening acoustic set by Clapton, including a funky country “Lay Down Sally” with Vince Gill; an undoubtedly happy Kurt Rosenwinkel with a double whammy of a set featuring out there jams with fusion god Allan Holdsworth and Clapton; Booker T with his band (including Steve Cropper) and Albert Lee doing everything but sleepwalking through the ‘50s instrumental “Sleep Walk”; 14-year old wiz Quinn Sullivan wowing the crowd by holding his own onstage with Buddy Guy; 87-years young legend BB King joining the Robert Cray Band to thunderous applause for “Let The Good Times Roll” and “Everyday I Have The Blues”; and the Allman Brothers Band flashback to the days when vinyl ruled the world set, including early classics “Don’t Want You No More/It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” “Whipping Post,” “Statesboro Blues” and a wonderful “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” with Clapton.

Night two highlights included Jeff Beck blazing through “I Ain’t Superstitious” and “Going Down” with the uber-talented trio of bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, violinist Lizzie Ball and vocalist Beth Hart (the only time female musicians outnumbered the men on stage); A powerful one-two familial musical eulogy: Doyle Bramhall II’s tribute to his late father with an acoustic rendition of the Bramhall Sr.-penned SRV song “Change It,” accompanied by Mayer, immediately followed by “Six Strings Down,” Jimmie Vaughan’s eloquent tribute to his late brother;

Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks with hot session guitarist Blake Mills on “Save the Last Dance For Me”; Gregg Allman joining Trucks and Warren Haynes for “Midnight Rider” and a rendition of Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”; Keith Urban ripping out a great version of the Rolling Stones “Tumblin’ Dice,” perhaps a deliberate hint at the surprise guest of the night ; and “I Shall Be Released” by The Band’s Robbie Robertson with Clapton’s band, dedicated “in remembrance of some dear old friends.”

Naturally, as a guitar geek festival, it was truly guitar envy watching performer after performer strut out with gorgeous axes – Fenders, Martins, Gibsons, and several beautifully ornate boutique hand-crafted models- all played through wonderful sounding amps made for a musically enriching experience.

And in a truly classy move, Clapton gave a mid-show prime performance slot to a virtual unknown – Philip Sayce, the winner of the Ernie Ball/Guitar Center ‘Play Crossroads’ contest. Sayce wowed the crowd with a five-minute blistering instrumental. Guitar Center also participated in the musical love fest with a display of the Eric Clapton Crossroads Collection and other notable instruments, including Clapton’s Fender Stratocasters “Blackie” and “Brownie”; his early Gibson ES-335; vintage Martins and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Fender Strat “Lenny.”

And let’s not forget that this was not just a guitar geek’s dream concert but also a fundraiser for a worthy cause- The Crossroads Centre in Antigua, which Clapton founded in 1997. The facility was created to provide affected individuals with quality, affordable treatment for alcohol and other drug dependencies. Keith Urban brought the message home before he and John Mayer launched into a lyrically appropriate and musically exhilarating cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”: “I come tonight not only as a friend of John’s, but also a very good friend of Bill W (ed note: founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), so I’m really honored to be a part of this great cause.”

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Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival