"I do this for fun," Eric Clapton confessed in an interview the day before he hosted and headlined the second Crossroads Guitar Festival, an eleven-hour marathon of solos and joy, on July 28th for 28,000 people at Toyota Park in Chicago. The sold-out event was held to benefit the Crossroads Centre, the drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility Clapton founded on the Caribbean island of Antigua in 1997. (Sales of the two-DVD set filmed at the inaugural Crossroads, a three-day affair in Dallas in 2004, have raised about seven million dollars for the Centre.)
But the true theme of the day was Friends and Idols. The heart of Clapton's hour-and-a-half set was a dynamic reunion with singer-organist-guitarist Steve Winwood. Together, they revived three songs from their 1969 album as Blind Faith. Clapton also paid tribute to a lifelong friend who couldn't be there, George Harrison, with an electrifying version of "Isn't It a Pity" from Harrison's 1970 masterpiece All Things Must Pass.
Clapton generously stacked the bill with players who have been his deep influences, close companions and frequent collaborators — many of them all at the same time, such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck and Robbie Robertson. Doyle Bramhall II, who has played with Clapton on records and the road for several years, and Derek Trucks, who has been a sensational addition on slide guitar to Clapton's latest touring band, both got their own afternoon sets, as did more recent Clapton friends and favorites John Mayer and sacred-steel fireball Robert Randolph.
Clapton made sure he did not miss any of the fun. He was there at noon, joining the show's host Bill Murray for a brief, comic duet on Van Morrison's "Gloria" and personally introducting the first act of the day, Louisiana slide-guitar marvel Sonny Landreth. And when Clapton wasn't stepping out to jam — as he did with Landreth, Sheryl Crow (a version of J.J. Cale's "Tulsa Time") and, in the Chicago-blues finale, Guy, Mayer, Jimmie Vaughan and Hubert Sumlin — he was at the side of the stage, drinking in the virtuosity and smiling gratefully at the thanks and tributes offered by the performers throughout the show. The highlight of B.B. King's appearance, with an all-star crew including Vaughan, Sumlin and Robert Cray, was the bluesman's touching, gentlemanly toast to Clapton.
"I'll probably embarrass him, but I just need to do it, Eric," King said, lifting his red plastic cup of water. "I've been around the world, I've met kings and queens. But I've never met a better man, a more gracious man — my friend Eric Clapton. May I live forever," added King, 81. "But may you live forever and a day. Because I don't want to be here if you're not around." The crowd roared its approval.
The thrills started while the parking lot was still half empty — Clapton and Landreth's dueling Cajun-fire solos in "Hell at Home" — and are too numerous to recount here. You will be able to do that later; the show was filmed for DVD release. What follows is six of the day's highs, one for each of the strings on Clapton's Stratocaster:
1) Johnny Winter with the Derek Trucks Band, burning fret wood on Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." Trucks later said that Winter had missed soundcheck the day before, and the closest thing to rehearsal they had was a short runthrough in Winter's Winnebago just before the set. But on stage, Winter, sitting on a chair and hunched over his guitar, tore off squealing lines with his metal slide that meshed viciously, and perfectly, with the vocal-like shriek of Trucks' bottleneck responses.
2) Jimmie Vaughan with Robert Cray, swapping Strat sting in the uptempo instrumental shuffle "Six Strings Down." You could clearly hear, in the Texas bite of Vaughan's soloing, the inspiration Clapton found and treasured in the Lone Star electric blues of Freddie King and, later, Vaughan's brother, Stevie Ray.
3) The U.S.-U.K. country-picking summit of Vince Gill and Albert Lee, who played two songs with such jaw-dropping speed and spiked-treble precision that Sheryl Crow, who then joined them on stage, remarked in amazement, "I can't do anything that fast."
4) Jeff Beck's entire set, a near-hour of instrumental fusion napalm. The details in Beck's attack — the high strangled notes, the seagull-cry feedback, the rubbery, shivering growls — are pure amp tone and natural string-bending. It was worth watching the close-up shots on the video screen to see him finger-picking the strings while manipulating his vibrato bar with the same hand. His closing number, the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," has become a fixture of Beck's live shows, and rightly so. At Crossroads, his exquisite transformation of the original recording's psychedelic grandeur into pure, arcing melody and English-blues viscera would have brought the roof down, if the venue had one. As one fan put it to me after Beck's set, "You have to tell everyone Jeff Beck burned the place up!" There, I did it.
5) Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood soloing in knotty, heavy-rock tandem in Blind Faith's "Had to Cry Today." With the doubled tumble behind them of drummers Ian Thomas and Steve Jordan, you could have sworn Ginger Baker had snuck onto the bandstand when no one was looking.
6) Clapton dedicating "Isn't It a Pity" to George Harrison ("This is for someone I wish was here"), then giving Derek Truicks long solo time after the last verse, with Trucks taking off on a searing — and soaring — break that sounded like heated prayer. On a day full of extraordinary solos, this was true rapture.
Check out the Crossroads Photo gallery here