The Crossroads Guitar Festival is known for epic collaborations, and this year’s event was no exception: Mid-Saturday afternoon, a relentless sun scorched more than 28,000 fans at Chicago’s Toyota Stadium as Ronnie Wood, Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang kicked into the Rolling Stones classic “Miss You.” The loose blues unit — an unannounced addition to the lineup — rode the tight, slinky groove for eight minutes, flawlessly weaving twangy notes. After the monumental jam, which included an impromptu verse from Guy about breaking a string, he basked in the crowd’s love, and sighed, “Man, I’m in heaven.”
Crossroads — a benefit for Eric Clapton’s Antigua rehab facility — is now in its third year since 2004. “It’s not about hits. It’s a community we try to create,” said producer Scooter Weintraub. “It doesn’t get the publicity that a Bonnaroo would. But it’s a real music festival.” The 12-hour day boasted originators B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin and Guy, their Brit blues prodigies Jeff Beck and Steve Winwood, and representatives of every generation since. “I thought it was just going to be Eric and Jeff,” Wood said. “Then I got all these wonderful surprises.”
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Host Bill Murray introduced acts and joked about the heat (“Today only, beer counts as hydrated”) as the day got underway. Bert Jansch played a spellbinding acoustic set, returning after battling lung cancer just a year ago. ZZ Top emerged in studded black suits for a quick dose of barbequed boogie highlighted by a fuzz-drenched cover of “Foxy Lady.” Billy Gibbons added a gravelly growl, giving the Hendrix classic an evil doom-rock edge.
Murray hit the stage wearing a full-on Seventies Elvis jumpsuit and introduced John Mayer, recalling the guitarist’s 2007 appearance at the fest with his full band. “He wasn’t quite right last time,” he said. “He didn’t feel it enough — he wasn’t TCB.” On cue, Mayer emerged in white-rimmed sunglasses with his blues trio — bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan — shooting down Murray’s doubts with frantic funk licks on “Who Did You Think I Was” and a soulful falsetto on “Vultures.”
Next up was Guy, joined by Wood and Lang. The trio’s loose set took shape the day before the show, Guy told Rolling Stone, but they sounded like familiar collaborators tearing through the scorching 12-bar blues of “Five Long Years.” Including the 1978 Stones classic “was Buddy’s idea,” Wood told Rolling Stone while picking up an iced coffee post-set. The sober Stone (“I’m 90 days clean and serene today!”) added, “It came naturally. I normally play it when I jam with Prince.” Wood said he flew in from London at the last minute, drawn to the prospect of rocking alongside other greats. “We get attracted like bees around a honey pot,” he said. “One guitarist melds another one, and the line increases and increases. All the guys who influenced people like me, Jeff and Eric are here. People like Buddy Guy and James Burton and B.B. King — they’re all here. It’s wonderful.” After a pause, he added, “Where’s Chuck Berry?” and broke into laughter. “He must be hiding.”
Backstage, performers relaxed in the air-conditioned Fender Artists Lounge, full of arcade games and vintage guitars. Before his set, John Mayer was stunned to receive an exact replica of his custom wood-chipped Fender Strat, while Clapton spent much of the first half of the day perched up on a leather stool watching the World Cup, shouting at the U.S. vs. Ghana match, “It’s the ball, it’s the ball!” referencing the new controversial Jabulani ball used in the tournament.
The casual atmosphere made for plenty of unexpected collaborations. Derek Trucks jammed with Sheryl Crow, and Clapton took the stage before noon with Sonny Landreth. “Everybody sits in with everybody here,” Trucks said. “Nobody’s fighting for positions. It’s adult Woodstock.” Country guitar legend James Burton played a rousing “Mystery Train” with Vince Gill and told RS, “All my friends are here. I’m back home again.”
The architects were all there, too — Buddy Guy, along with B.B. King and Hubert Sumlin (the latter two shared a dressing room and used wheelchairs to make it to the stage). Sumlin sat on a stool, grinning through a stunning “Sitting on Top of the World” with an oxygen tank attached to his nose alongside Jimmy Vaughn and Robert Cray in the early afternoon. “There’s three or four generations here,” said Trucks. “It’s beautiful to see Johnny, Hubert and B.B. Eric and everybody are children hanging out with these guys. With Hubert, everybody here is thrilled to be in his presence. He’s like the pope. The blues pope.”
Crow offered a refreshing break from 12-bar-blues with hits like “Every Day is a Winding Road,” and Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Susan Tedeschi put together a last-minute band of touring buddies, including Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Johnny Winter, to fill in for the absent Allman Brothers Band, channeling Delaney and Bonnie with a blazing “Coming Home.” “It was the first time we played together onstage,” Trucks laughed after the set.
As the sun set behind the stadium, Jeff Beck played an experimental set that jumped from jazz to classical. He tackled Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” a synth-backed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and his set highlight, a crushing cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.” The always-sleeveless legend played skilled bandleader, unleashing carefully chosen guitar assaults while passing around the spotlight to slap bass and tribal drum solos.
When Clapton took the stage next, he bowed to Hendrix and launched into a punchy “Crossroads,” then welcomed Beck back for the scorching blues classic “Shake Your Moneymaker.” Steve Winwood joined for a set heavy on Blind Faith classics. Winwood’s voice sounded perfectly intact on “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and an upbeat, guitar-slinging cover of Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right.”
The night wrapped up with King, Clapton, Cray and Jimmy Vaughn side by side in wooden chairs, trading licks on a laid-back take on “Rock Me Baby.” “When you’re 84 like me, you get to say whatever you want,” King told the crowd, with Clapton watching him carefully. King rambled over the track for 10-plus minutes, sending fans out the door and eventually guest stars started arriving without warning. Twenty guitarists filled the stage for a sloppy-but-passionate “Sweet Home Chicago” as Tedeschi wailed on vocals. “I’ve seen a lot of musicians up on a stage but I’ve never seen that many,” Guy said. “Even if we only got one note apiece, it was one of the thrills of my life.”
Clapton saved one last surprise for the very end of the night. Though he’d revealed to Rolling Stone this Crossroads would be his last, he evidently had a change of heart. “I know I said this would be the last one,” he told the crowd. “But I don’t think it will be.” After the show, Guy was relieved: “He must have had as much fun as I did.”