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Clapton’s Guitar Summit

The world’s greatest ax men — including B.B. King, John Mayer and Jeff Beck — come together at the Crossroads Festival in Chicago

Eric Clapton, B.B. King

Eric Clapton

Paul Bergen/Redferns

Halfway through eleven hours of thrilling solos by nearly two dozen of the best guitarists in rock, blues and country, B.B. King paused in his set at the Crossroads Guitar Festival, held July 28th at Chicago’s Toyota Park, to thank the man who brought them together — the show’s founder and guiding spirit, Eric Clapton.

“I’ve been around the world, I’ve met kings and queens,” King told the sold-out crowd. “But I’ve never met a better man, a more gracious man.” Then King, 81, raised his cup of water and turned in his chair to face Clapton, who was standing in the wings. “May I live forever. But may you live forever and a day. Because I don’t want to be here if you’re not around.” The audience — 28,000 guitar freaks —— cheered in agreement.

Everyone else who played —— a nonstop parade of virtuosos and explorers, including Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson, Steve Winwood, John McLaughlin, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, Vince Gill, John Mayer and Derek Trucks — paid tribute to Clapton by shooting for heated excellence in every fuzz-laced scream and barbed-treble run. In Clapton’s own hour-and-a-half set, Robert­son, who rarely plays live, came out to trade gnarled Stratocaster licks with Clapton in Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” which Robertson originally cut in 1963 with Ronnie Hawkins. Then Winwood joined Clapton for a three-song celebration of their 1969 band Blind Faith, ending “Had to Cry Today” locked in dogfighting solos. “English is a second language here,” noted Mayer, in awe of the playing around him. “Guitar playing is the first.”

Clapton puts it another way. “It’s about people you want to spend time with,” the guitarist, 62, says in his hotel suite the day be­fore the show. For this year’s festival, Clapton used the same simple guide for his wish list of shredders that he employed for his inaugural Crossroads, a three-day show in Dallas in 2004. “If there’s a great musician but he’s an asshole,” Clapton says, laughing, “he doesn’t get invited.”

In Chicago, Clapton was onstage vir­tually the whole day. When he wasn’t playing, he smiled like it was Christmas every minute as he stood in the wings, bobbing to the locomotive bluegrass of Alison Krauss and Union Station, the spidery riffing of legendary Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and the battle of the slides between Trucks and Johnny Winter in “Highway 61 Revisited.” Clap­ton was also a keen listener while he played, donating generous solo space to the guitarists in his own band, Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II, during “Tell the Truth” and Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades.” In a stunning cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” dedi­cated to his late friend, Clapton handed the climactic solo spot to Trucks, who responded with holy slide fire and got a roaring ovation in return.

“Most stars aren’t that open and giving,” Trucks said earlier. “But Eric is so secure in his place, even going back to the Dominos, with Duane Allman. There aren’t many guys who would have let Duane come in and throw down. But Eric was always like that.”

“I’ve never been a head cutter,” Clap­ton insists. “I can do that if I have to. But I like to listen to people, and the best place to listen to them is onstage.” And while both Crossroads fests were benefits for the Crossroads Centre — the rehabilita­tion facility that Clapton, a recovered addict and alcoholic, founded in Antigua in 1997 — the guitarist confesses that the real charity, at least musically, is himself. “This is a genuinely good cause,” he says. “People get well. But having the founda­tion gives me the clout to put this on.”

The first Crossroads cost more than $1 million to stage, but Clapton says a guitar auction that weekend raised $7 mil­lion, and sales of a two-DVD set shot at the 2004 show “have been as successful.” Scooter Weintraub, one of the festival producers, said he expected this year’s concert, also filmed, to “stay in the black, then we’ll build on it with DVD sales. It will profit nicely in the end.”

Crossroads is a benefit in still another way: for the guitar itself and those who play it. “There is an element of preserv­ing the purity of the art,” Clapton ad­mits. “I am attracted to people who are skillful, people who care — and to me, the guitar represents love and care. I learned to play from records. But I won’t suffer emotionally when the record industry dies. Because the guitar is a live instrument. It’s about performance, even if it’s just two people in a room, playing in­struments we can carry around in a bag.

“It’s interesting,” he goes on, “because I don’t play very much when I’m not ac­tually committed to work. I don’t know how to practice. There is no method, no set of scales for what I do. When I needed to start practicing for this, I just started to bend strings, without any application toward melody or thinking of tunes.” He moves the second and third fingers on his left hand in the air, as if he’s stretch­ing strings on a Strat neck. “The whole point was physical, to develop calluses.

“What I learned from that,” Clapton says, “is I haven’t got any music in me until I’m in the place where it’s needed. Which is one of the reasons I do this,” he adds, referring to Crossroads. “I need to do it for my soul, and the most important part of it is hearing other people play, because I respond to that.”

For a man who spoke firmly about imminent retirement at the time of his 2001 album, Reptile, Clapton now talks enthusiastically about the forward motion he has discovered in playing his Blind Faith, Dominos and early solo material again. “Songs like’Tell the Truth’ and ‘Got to Get Better in a Little While’ have given me an idea of what I would do if I started writ­ing,” he says thoughtfully. “I can write with just an amp and guitar, then play it with four or five musicians. That’s tempt­ing— to open that door again.”

Asked if there will be a third Cross­roads, Clapton feigns shock. “If we sur­vive this!” he shouts helplessly, then says excitedly, “I can go there in a heartbeat: three days in a perfect countryside set­ting, with as much music as we can.”

He grins. “Someone’s gotta do it. And I’m the guy.”

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