With fourth guitar festival, Clapton and friends deliver plenty of blues at the Crossroads

Having attended two of the three previous Crossroads Guitar Festivals (the first in Dallas, as well as the most recent in Chicago), we weren’t all that sure what to think about last fall’s announcement of the 2013 installment of the renowned festival. Sure, the line-up was solid enough, as is always the case, but in addition to the moves to both a new city and an indoor arena (in NY’s famed Madison Square Garden), the 2013 event would also for the first time be spread out over two nights rather than taking place during a single full day. This of course led to a whole range of new questions and decisions for interested fans, among them, which artists would be performing which night? which, if any, might play both nights? and would the second night of performances be worth an additional night’s hotel in one of the world’s most expensive cities, on top of the premium ticket prices?

For Crossroads faithful such as ourselves, there was really only one way to get the answers to these questions, and we’re pleased to report that the past weekend’s affair was, collectively, the best Crossroads yet, featuring superb performances from host Eric Clapton, other established acts like the Allman Brothers Band, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Taj Mahal, Booker T. and Steve Cropper, Robert Cray, and Vince Gill, and such rising stars as Gary Clark Jr., Doyle Bramhall II, Quinn Sullivan, and Philip Sayce, along with a whole lot in between, from John Mayer, Earl Klugh, and Sonny Landreth to Keb Mo, Robert Randolph, and Jimmie Vaughan.

To see more photos from the festival, please visit our BluesPowR Gallery

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B.B. King

An acoustic set from none other than Clapton himself ensured that the weekend started on a bluesy note, with Clapton accompanied only by a few band members for the opening “Drifting Blues.” Longtime Clapton collaborators Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II joined in for the next song – Low’s “Spider Jiving” – with its chorus of “won’t someone take away these blues.” From there, they moved to “Tears in Heaven,” followed by a “Lay Down Sally” on which Clapton also welcomed Vince Gill, before closing the twenty minute set with “Wonderful Tonight.”

Booker T.Steve Cropper, and Keb Mo grooved through a few instrumentals, along the way adding Blake MillsMatt “Guitar” Murphy, and Albert Lee to their ranks, with the highlights of the set coming in a Keb Mo-sung “Born Under a Bad Sign” that we hope (for your sake as well as ours) is included on the coming highlights DVD, followed by the MGs hit “Green Onions.”

Robert Cray and his band were the next to take the stage, kicking off on “Great Big Old House” from their latest album Nothin but Love, before welcoming the King of the Blues, B.B. King, for “Let the Good Times Roll” and a “Sweet Sixteen” that saw Cray and King trading vocals. Things only got better from there, with Cray inviting both Jimmie Vaughan and Clapton to join them for a terrific “Everyday I Have the Blues.”

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Gary Clark, Jr.

After a song from Sonny Landreth on the side stage, it was current Clapton sideman Bramhall’s turn to shine, backed by horns and background singers as he worked through songs like “Green Light Girl” before bringing on, first, Citizen Cope for “Bullet and a Target,” and then adding Gary Clark Jr. for a knock-out “Son’s Gonna Rise,” with Bramhall finishing on the mesmerizing “She’s Alright.”

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Buddy Guy

Ernie Ball Crossroads guitar contest winner Philip Sayce contributed a wild, energetic “Steamroller” before Earl Klugh helped to settle things back down with some instrumental jazz, providing a rather nice segue to the set that followed from the Kurt Rosenwinkel Band, including Clapton on vocals for the sensitive “If I Should Lose You” and Tommy Johnson’s rollicking “Big Road.” Gary Clark Jr. played a rare solo set (on both guitar and drums) that included “Don’t Owe You a Thing,” followed by a half-hour performance from John Mayer that started on “Who Says” (which happens to include one of my favorite lyrics in “I don’t remember you looking any better, but then again, I don’t remember you”), and then moved to “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” and “Queen of California” before Mayer invited first-time Crossroads artist Keith Urban to join him in a cover of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” that helped both shift the evening to a whole new level of awesome and warm up the stage for bluesman Buddy Guy and his band, accompanied by 14-year-old Quinn Sullivan and pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph. Of course, there’s no better way for Buddy to kick off his set than with “Damn Right I Got the Blues,” which he followed with a clever “Let the Doorknob Hit Ya” that included nice solos from both Sullivan and Randolph, before finishing up on “Someone Else is Steppin’ In.”

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Taj Mahal w/ Allman Brothers Band

Master of ceremonies Dan Aykroyd donned his shades to sing and play some harmonica, joined by Keb Mo on guitar for “Got My Mojo Working” in honor of Muddy Waters’ 100th birthday this month, with headliners the Allman Brothers Band taking the stage at the four-hour mark. After kicking off with “Ain’t My Cross to Bear,” the band welcomed Taj Mahal and Los Lobos guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas for an exciting “Statesboro Blues” that featured Taj both on harmonica and sharing vocals with Gregg Allman. From there, they moved to “Black Hearted Woman,” then brought Clapton back onstage for the final time that evening with another show-stopping number in “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad.” There was only one way out for the band from here, closing out their 45-minute set and the first night of the festival on a splendid “Whipping Post.”

After a full day’s break, we were pleased to see that many of the same artists – and perhaps fans – returned to Madison Square Garden for a sold-out Saturday night, which began on the largely instrumental slide stylings of Sonny Landreth. A few songs in, Landreth introduced “one of the greatest musicians I have ever known,” Derek Trucks, who joined on “Cherry Ball Blues” and “Congo Square.”

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Jimmie Vaughan

Doyle Bramhall II followed with a short acoustic set, bringing on John Mayer for “Change It,” a song written by Bramhall’s father for friend Stevie Ray Vaughan. Coincidentally, Vaughan’s brother Jimmie happened to be the next act to take the stage, starting on the always-chilling “Six Strings Down” about the death of his brother and many other blues guitar players, made somewhat less haunting this particular night by the sweet voice of Susan Tedeschi singing along just next to us in the aisle.

Newcomer Blake Mills did a few songs next, first solo, then partnering with Derek Trucks on “Save the Last Dance for Me,” followed by an intriguing set from Los Lobos. Starting on a rocking “Burn It Down” that allowed us to again hear from Susan Tedeschi (this time on the stage where others could also appreciate it), the set also included guest appearances from Robert Cray – providing some terrific vocals on “Just Got to Know” as members of his own band cheered him on from the audience – and Clapton.

Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks delivered another solid performance on the side stage, beginning with “Old Friend,” before being joined by Gregg Allman for both Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and the Allman Brothers Band’s own “Midnight Rider.” For being a bunch of country guys, Vince GillAlbert Lee, and Keith Urban put on a rather rocking show, including Lee on vocals for Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone,” Urban tackling the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” and Gill and Lee trading vocals on “Setting Me Up.”

Despite our best efforts, we didn’t get to see Taj Mahal and Keb Mo when they toured together a few years back, so it was nice to have the chance to see them team up for even a short set, digging in on “Walking Blues,” followed by Taj on vocals for “Diving Duck Blues,” and then Keb doing “That’s Alright,” making for one of our personal favorite sets of the festival.

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Jeff Beck

Gary Clark Jr. returned to the stage, this time with his own band, for a thumping set that we’re pretty sure blew the roof off the Garden on the very first song, “When My Train Pulls In,” quieting it down just a bit with “Please Come Home,” then capping off the performance on “Bright Lights.” After a few instrumentals, Jeff Beck invited Beth Hart to join him on vocals, bringing a whole different energy to his set with “I Ain’t Superstitious” and a superb “Going Down.”

76-year-old Buddy Guy did a short acoustic set of “74 Years Young” and John Lee Hooker’s “In the Mood” before it was time for the evening’s closing act in Clapton himself. When the lights came up, though, Clapton wasn’t alone, with surprise guest Keith Richards providing a nice introduction for Clapton as the two launched into “Key to the Highway” with Richards on vocals as well as taking the first solo. From there, Richards announced it was time to “rock it up” a little, then proceeding to deliver “Sweet Little Rock n’ Roller,” after which Keith was replaced by a guitarist from another well-known band in Robbie Robertson, who started on “He Don’t Live Here No More” followed by “I Shall Be Released” “for some old friends.”

Keith Richards & Eric Clapton

Keith Richards & Eric Clapton

With Robertson’s exit, Andy Fairweather Low stepped into the coveted guest spot, taking the lead on a delightful “Gin House Blues” that included a burning solo from Clapton before turning it over to the festival host, who, with his band, tore through many of the best songs from their current tour in a “Got to Get Better in a Little While” that simply gets better every time we hear it, “Crossroads,” “Little Queen of Spades,” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” with Clapton also slipping in a “see you in three years” to provide hope that this wouldn’t be the last chance we’d all have to witness the type of mastery and unique pairings we did these past two nights.

As good as it was to see Clapton perform these songs the weekend before during his tour stop in Pittsburgh, he and his band were even more spectacular this time around, with a full weekend of guitar talent apparently helping even him achieve new heights. Indeed, about the only thing that could have made his set any better would have been the inclusion of “Badge,” but we’re certainly not complaining, as Clapton clearly accomplished not one, but two, pretty remarkable feats on the weekend, putting in both his own best Crossroads set in addition to the best Crossroads festival overall.

And that’s not even mentioning the finale, which saw nearly all of the evening’s guitarists (save perhaps for Richards and Beck) return to the stage to jam and take a solo on Joe Cocker’s “High Time We Went.”

Anyone who might be starting to think that Clapton’s Crossroads festivals are the same from one to the next will want to be sure to check out the upcoming DVD of this latest installment. Not only has the festival continued to feature some of the most masterful pairings we’ve ever seen, but the two-night structure this time around also allowed for a much greater diversity of performances from many of the artists – particularly those who played both nights – than previously possible, including, for example, both acoustic and electric acts from the likes of Clapton, Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr., John Mayer, and the Allman Brothers.

Seeing either night of the festival would have been enough to ensure that you’d leave happy, but experiencing both nights was nothing short of priceless. See you in three years, indeed.

Photos from both nights of the festival can be viewed in our BluesPowR Gallery

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