There are three undeniable truths I learned from the 13 straight hours of electric guitar at the Crossroads Guitar Festival:
- Clapton is, in fact, God.
- Because Clapton is, in fact, God, he has made it acceptable for affluent white people to enjoy the blues.
- Affluent white people do not know the meaning of the phrase “General Admission.”
People arrived as soon as the doors opened at 9AM, put their blankets on the rubber ground that covered the field, and became near-violent if anyone came near their territory. Three acts in, emcee Bill Murray (yes, the Bill Murray) told the crowd, “I have just been told that some of you have staked out a territory up front. That was cool in the beginning, but there are four thousand people still coming, and they all need to be right where you are. So let’s pick up our stuff and get serious.” After that, the crowd straightened up.
The show, which had a full bill of 14 distinctly-introduced acts, was a one-stage event. Normally, this would require quite a bit of downtime for setup, but they solved this by using a revolving stage, so that while one act was playing, the second stage could be prepared for the following act behind it.
Naturally, Bill Murray used this device as his opening schtick. The blank stage slowly turned, and Murray, with a guitar, slowly came into view and struck a rock-star pose as the crowd cheered. He proceeded to play the only song he knew on the guitar, Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” which was understandably bad, but he still got Clapton to come out and solo for him.
The first act was Sonny Landreth. The mostly-instrumental set was highlighted when he asked Clapton to again join him onstage for a few songs, and Landreth played well. The second act was the forgettably-experimental John McLaughlin. Third was the folk group Alison Krauss and Union Station. She played violin, and they wowed the crowd with their brand of country-folk. Her voice was very strong and intense, and carried well, though they didn’t quite seem to fit in with the other acts.
The next two acts were the solo projects of Clapton’s two guitarists: Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks. Bramhall is left-handed and plays upside-down, as Jimi Hendrix has been rumored to play (despite the fact that Hendrix re-strung his guitars in the standard left-handed fashion), though Bramhall does actually play left-handed instruments. His band played a very short set, and Bramhall’s songs were very reminiscent of Hendrix’s, with one having a riff that was just this side of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
Derek Trucks is one of the busiest men in music today. In addition to playing in his own band (The Derek Trucks Band), he also is a member of The Allman Brothers Band and one of Clapton’s new backing guitarists. He played next, and was joined by the phenomenally talented and sexy Susan Tedeschi. He was eventually joined by legendary guitarist Johnny Winter on an excellent cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Robert Randolph & The Family Band played next, and Randolph somehow managed to have a dominating stage presence despite the fact that he plays a pedal steel guitar sitting down. Robert Cray was next, and his band ended up playing for nearly 90 minutes as it was used by a menagerie of solo performers: Jimmie Vaughan (older brother to late legend Stevie Ray), Hubert Sumlin, and the Mr. BB King.
King paused to talk to the audience for about five minutes (a big faux pas in a festival with so many acts requiring the stage), but no doubt avoided the third degree by saying some very tender, very nice things about Eric Clapton: “I’m 81 years old, and I’ve played in 90 countries. I’ve met all sorts of people, Kings and Queens, but I’ve never met a better man, a more gracious man, than my friend Eric Clapton…may I live forever, but may [Clapton] live forever and a day.” They showed Eric Clapton’s emotional reaction backstage; it was a very sweet moment, and ended appropriately with a blues song.
The next two acts were absolutely terrible. First up was Aaron Lowe (or something like that), the winner of some kind of Guitar Center contest. Not only were his songs bland and meaningless, but he couldn’t work his equipment and shorted out the sound. Next was the dreadful John Mayer. I’ll say this: he’s a good guitarist, but he’d do better if he was the lead guitarist in a blues band and had some of the pretty taken out of his face. He made it clear to the crowd that he cannot sing or write to save his life.
Vince Gill was next, and like Robert Cray’s band, they were used as the backing band for a plethora of solo artists including Albert Lee, Cheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson. Clapton joined Cheryl Crow’s set, and Crow joined Nelson’s set. These mellow and acoustic sets, like Union Station hours before, were standouts in the overwhelmingly electric-driven day.
Los Lobos then played a very good set, with rotating lead singers. Jeff Beck was after that, after being introduced by Bill Murray as his “favorite guitarist.” Beck came out looking youthful. Even more youthful was his bassist, a young girl who looked to be about fifteen. At first the general attitude of the crowd was skeptical, as this unproven girl acted like a regular performer, but about a minute into the set, Beck pointed to her and she let off a thirty-second long, ultra-complicated solo. No more skepticism after that.
The four-piece closed their set with the highlight of the evening: an all-instrumental version of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” Beck’s guitar took the vocal lines, and the effect was sublime. I wished that song was four hours long despite my aching-from-standing-all-fucking-day legs. When it ended and they played that last iconic chord, there was a tear in my eye.
Eric Clapton was last (of course), and played an excellent set, including another Beatles-related cover, “Isn’t It A Pity,” dedicated to the late “George Harrison,” a close friend to Clapton. The legendary Robbie Robertson of The Band (one of my favorite guitarists) came out of near-retirement to join Clapton on two songs, and Steve Winwood, Clapton’s fellow Blind Faith alumnus, joined them onstage for three Blind Faith songs. Clapton, Bramhall, and Trucks left the stage while Winwood played his solo song “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” then they returned for Robert Johnson’s legendary song “Crossroads,” and a “thanks for coming.” There was no “Layla” or “Sweet Home Chicago” to be had.
Buddy Guy was the encore, and he was excellent. His trademark improvisational-lyric blues were especially funny that night, and he got the crowd worked up one last time. The closing jam was a little disappointing: Clapton, Cray, Mayer (ugh), Albert Lee, Johnny Winter, and Jimmie Vaughan. Lots of guitarists as usual, but some of the stars of the show were left out, namely Robbie Robertson, Bramhall, Trucks, and Jeff Beck.
I have never heard so much electric guitar in one day in my life. Ever.