Reporting Brian Ives
At night one of Eric Clapton‘s Crossroads festival, he opened the show with an acoustic set. So, on night two (April 13), fans showed up at the 7:30 p.m. start time in hopes of getting another early sighting of “Slowhand.” And indeed he did begin the show – albeit without a guitar. Clapton, microphone in hand, started things off alongside Crossroads MC Dan Aykroyd, thanking the audience for coming and cryptically mentioning “This could be the last one, you never know.” With that, he kicked off the second of two nights that saw some of the most well known six-stringers walking the earth collaborating with lesser known musicians. Both nights of the festival raised money for, and attention to, Clapton’s Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a substance abuse clinic.
Clapton introduced slide guitar master Sonny Landreth. He wasn’t the most famous name to grace the stage at the show, but his incredible slide playing was jaw-droppingly incredible. Speaking of jaw-dropping, another one of the most revered guitarists in the world today, Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band, joined him during this set for an incredible slide guitar dual.
Clapton sideman Doyle Bramhall II then took to the acoustic sidestage to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A’Comin’” on an acoustic 12 string. He was then joined by John Mayer for an early emotional highlight of the show – a cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Change It,” which was written for Vaughan by his Bramhall’s father, Doyle Bramhall I. The song’s lyrics of redemption – “Get away from the blind side of life/Honey, I want you to be by my side/Me an’ my back door moves ain’t no more,” seemed especially apropos: Vaughan himself struggled with drug dependency. Mayer, a longtime disciple of SRV’s music, sang and played soulfully, as if the song was his own.
It was a heavy moment, and probably heaviest for Jimmie Vaughan – brother of the late Stevie Ray – who had to follow it. He took to the stage with his band and opened with “Six Strings Down,” about his late brother (“Heaven done called another blues stringer back home”). Vaughan led his band – a decidedly old-school troupe all wearing suits and ties – through an incredibly tight set of no-frills blues, Texas-style.
Derek Trucks made his second guest appearance of the night with solo performer Blake Mills, and after that, Trucks’ wife and bandmate Susan Tedeschi hit the stage with Los Lobos for their opening number, “Burn It Down” from their most recent album, 2010′s Tin Can Trust (she sang on the studio version as well). A ragged guitar workout, the band demonstrated their diversity by following that with a Cumbia song sung in Spanish, “Que Bonitos.” From there, they showed even more range, kicking into the straight blues, as they were joined by Robert Cray for “I Want To Know.” Cray then left the stage, and Clapton made his first appearance of the night with a guitar, joining the band for the title track of Tin Can Trust. Clapton left and then they went into their rave up “Don’t Worry Baby” from 1984′s How Will The Wolf Survive?
Allman Brothers Band members Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks then took to the acoustic stage as a duo, leading off with “Old Friend,” from the Allmans’ most recent album, 2003′s Hittin’ The Note. Then they were joined by Gregg Allman for the pointedly appropriate Neil Young song, “The Needle And The Damage Done” – a short, dark tale about the consequences of drug abuse… something that many of the musicians performing, and workers from the Crossroads clinic have seen all too often. They finished with Gregg’s classic, “Midnight Rider,” a song he’s recorded with the Brothers and as solo artist. Their acoustic trio take on the song split the difference between his two versions.
After that a collection of country superstars – Vince Gill and Keith Urban, along with Albert Lee – opened with “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” a song written by Rodney Crowell and first recorded by Emmylou Harris. Gill, Urban and Lee practically melted their fretboards by the time the song was done. For their second song, Albert Lee took lead vocals for a take on Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone.” From there, Keith Urban, having covered The Beatles the previous night, took a swing at the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” They then closed with the Dire Straits’ “Setting Me Up,” a song which Lee had previously covered (and which, in another lifetime, Gill might have played with Mark Knopfler – he reportedly turned down an offer to join that band).The three artists shared vocals and all showed off some tasty fretwork.
Taj Majal and keb’mo then took the stage as an acoustic duo, both playing dobros for Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.” They followed that with “Diving Duck Blues.” keb’mo took the mic for another blues number “Who’s Loving You Tonight?”
One of the newer big names in blues, Gary Clark Jr., who played a solo acoustic set the previous night, was next. This time, he played with his full band, cranking out “When My Train Pulls In,” from last year’s Blak And Blu. The young guitarist/singer got a lot of of attention for his show stopping performance at Crossroads in 2010. Since then, he has played nearly every major American festival, and even has performed for the President twice in the past two years. A lot has happened for this artist since that 2010 appearance, and when he took the stage at the Garden, he did so with with authority; he and his band played with a fury that demonstrated why so many fans are so excited about this up-and-coming bluesman. His short set featured one other song, the Prince-like soul ballad “Please Come Home.”
Jeff Beck was next: he had a three piece backing band – bass, drums and violin , and they started out with two instrumental jams. While Clapton was the most well known ex-Yardbird at The Garden, Beck is probably the most adventurous, and his guitar playing is just as distinct. After his two instrumental pieces, singer Beth Hart joined them for the Willie Dixon classic “I Ain’t Superstitious” (which Beck recorded with his original Jeff Beck Group), followed by “Goin’ Down.” Hart, a force-of-nature singer, helped the band to raise the roof. The day before, she told Radio.com that it’s a huge honor to play with Beck, and that it was a big thrill to be performing at the Crossroads Festival. It’s notable that, while there were few women gracing the stage throughout the weekend, Beck had three in his four person backing band.
Buddy Guy, who played with his full electric band the prior night, was next up, playing acoustic guitar and backed by a second guitarist and a drummer. He started with ”74 Years Young” (updating the lyrics to “76 years young”) from his most recent album, 2010′s Living Proof; when he sang “I feel like I’m 21 – I’m 76 years young!” the crowd roared. He then went into John Lee Hooker’s “I’m In The Mood.”
After that, it was time for the main event. There were rumors that Clapton would host a special guest during his set, and that was no hype: Keith Richards was with him when he took the stage, singing lead and playing guitar on “Key To The Highway” to the delight of the audience. “It’s great to be back in New York City,” he said, after the song. “Now we’re gonna rock it up,” and the band then launched into a ragged take on Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock And Roller.” Clapton doesn’t play that wild brand of barroom rock and roll very often anymore, but he was all smiles backing Richards on the tune. If indeed, Clapton plans on retiring from touring when he hits 70 (as he recently told Rolling Stone), one hopes he does at least one tour with the Rolling Stone in his band. Richards brought out the best in the legendary guitarist.
Richards left the stage and was replaced by the famously stage-shy Robbie Robertson for “He Don’t Live Here No More,” from Robertson’s most recent album, 2011′s How To Become Clairvoyant (which Clapton contributed heavily to). Then, Robertson dedicated the next song “to some dearly departed friends,” going into Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” His former group, The Band, recorded that song, and likely he had his former bandmate, Levon Helm (who passed away last year) in mind.
Clapton’s next guest was Andy Fairweather-Low, who’d joined him the night before; after two songs on the mic, he left, and Clapton sang his first song of the night, Derek & The Dominoes’ “Got To Get Better In A Little While.” Next was “Crossroads,” the song after which he named the clinic benefitting from this weekend’s performances. He followed that Robert Johnson cover with another one, “Little Queen Of Spades.”
Throughout his set, he didn’t just hand over the mic to others, he also shared solos with his band – guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and keyboardist Chris Stainton got instrumental spotlights. It was another manifestation of the generosity Clapton has shown in recent decades: he often lends his name and talents to albums by artists without nearly the name recognition that he has. And of course, there’s the fact that he contributes lots of money, and seemingly limitless time and energy to the Crossroads clinic.
Clapton revisited one of his biggest radio hits, Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” next, splitting lead vocals with Bramhall. With that, keyboardist Paul Carrack (formerly of Squeeze and Mike & The Mechanics) took the lead vocals for “High Time We Went,” a Joe Cocker song. A veritable guitar army – Haynes, Clark, Trucks, Landreth, Guy, Majal, Los Lobos’ David Hildago and Cesar Rojas, Cray and Robertson, among others joined the stage to trade solos. 13 year old Buddy Guy protégée Quinn Sullivan took an extended lead as Clapton and company grinned, knowing that even if they do retire, blues guitar playing looks to be in good hands for years to come. Clapton thanked the audience and contradicted his earlier message, saying “See you in three years!” Perhaps after watching the incredible performances at the show he curated, he’s reconsidering ending the festival. And after watching the “76 years young” Buddy Guy, he may be reconsidering that retirement thing, too.
Learn more about the Crossroads Centre, and contribute to it, here.
All photos by Larry Busacca/Getty Images