Eric Clapton was the opening act of his own Crossroads Guitar Festival on April 12. He took the stage at New York's Madison Square Garden just before the official starting time of 7:30, as if he couldn't wait to get the night going. Seated with an acoustic guitar, dressed in shades of gray and wearing glasses, Clapton performed a short set with his current touring band, starting with an earthy stroll through Charles Brown's "Drifting Blues." He also set the tone for the next ten hours, spread across the 12th and 13th, by giving generous spotlight and solo time to his initial guests: singer-guitarist and ex-Clapton sideman Andy Fairweather-Low and country picker Vince Gill.
It was a characteristic gesture for Clapton, one of rock's most self-effacing guitar heroes, and Crossroads itself, which featured sets and guest shots by more than two dozen other guitarists including Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, John Mayer, Keb' Mo, Sonny Landreth, Albert Lee, Robert Cray, Steve Cropper, Robbie Robertson and rising star Gary Clark Jr. Clapton, 68, is the founder and supervising spirit of the festival, which benefits his Caribbean addiction-treatment facillity of the same name and was held indoors for its fourth edition, after single-day outdoor extravaganzas in Dallas in 2004 and Chicago in 2007 and 2010.
Clapton is also Crossroads' inevitable headliner. He closed on the 13th, this time on electric guitar and with a surprise guest, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. The latter looked fit and soloed with short, tart phrases in the Big Bill Broonzy-Little Walter chestnut "Key to the Highway" and the 1958 Chuck Berry B-side "Sweet Little Rock and Roller." Richards also took a moment to honor Clapton, with good rude humor, for doing "such a beautiful job" with this shindig. "So let's give him the clap!" Richards said with a hoarse laugh, putting his hands together.
Blues and Fraternity
But Clapton mostly curates and attends each Crossroads as a student, fan and genially competitive friend. On the first night at the Garden, after that acoustic set, Clapton came back out to swap breaks and smiles in a variety of settings: with the Allman Brothers Band; the jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel; and a formidable row of bluesmen, including Cray, King and Jimmie Vaughan. The emphasis in that gang, all seated out of respect for the 87-year-old King, was on fraternity. "If you give them a big hand," King told the audience, gesturing to the others, "you make me feel good." In fact, although he played only intermittent guitar, King held up his vocal share of "Sweet Sixteen" and "Everyday I Have the Blues" like an undiminished lion. And when it was Clapton's turn to solo in the latter, he turned up his heat as if called on in class by a master teacher.
In his two songs with Rosenwinkle, Clapton demonstrated why he is – appropriately for such a reluctant star – still one of rock's busiest session guitarists and live sidemen: his ability to elevate another's starring moment with blending fluency. The up-tempo shuffle "Way Down That Lonesome Road" was closer to Clapton's usual stride, and he answered Rosenwinkel's rounded-treble be-bop charge with a slicing flair in his straight-blues runs. But in the ballad "If I Should Lose You," Clapton soloed with the right supporting distance in tone and ego, complementing Rosenwinkel's fluid poise with dextrous, understated melancholy.
Later, with the Allmans, Clapton did it again in the Derek and the Dominos rush of "Why Does Love Got to Be So Bad." He and guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks all soloed in the song's long, closing sigh, their strong, individual voices meshing into a glistening, bittersweet tangle in the growing quiet.
Playing in Combinations
Clapton's singular mix of command and reserve is also reflected in the balance of sharing and showboating at Crossroads. To satisfy customers who did not buy tickets for both Garden shows, most of the featured guitarists appeared on the 12th and 13th as guests and leaders and in quick acoustic interludes held on two smaller stages during equipment changes. The best moments came when the programming was as smart and nuanced as the soloing. Mayer and country star Keith Urban were a fine, exuberant match, putting a power-blues torch to the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down." Taj Mahal sang "Statesboro Blues" with the Allman Brothers – a fitting choice as it was his recording of that song, on the 1968 album, Taj Mahal, that inspired the late Duane Allman to play slide guitar.
Then on the 13th, in a side-stage segment, Haynes, Trucks and Gregg Allman performed Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done." The eerie, autobiographical authority in Gregg's voice – especially when he got to the personal resonance in the line, "I hit the city and I lost my band" – was gently matched by the mourning eloquence in Trucks' acoustic, bottleneck lines.
Gary Clark, Jr., now a much bigger star than when he made his explosive Crossroads debut in 2010, was everywhere: jamming with Clapton's guitarist Doyle Bramhall II; on the side in a rousing one-man-band appearance; and firing up "Bright Lights, Big City" at center stage on the 13th. This year's newcomers included Blake Mills, a touring guitarist and session player for Kid Rock, Band of Horses and Lucinda Williams. Mills made a quietly effective impact with his bottleneck and fingerpicking in the Santo and Johnny standard "Sleepwalk," backed by the sumptuous ripple of Booker T.'s Hammond organ.
Another new entry, Quinn Sullivan, is a teenage protege of Buddy Guy. The lack of air in Sullivan's precocious chops was no problem in Guy's typically exuberant set. His learning curve – particularly the melodic advantages in deep breathing – was evident when Guy's other guest, sacred-steel guitarist Robert Randolph, took off, alternating between his own busy ecstasies and long, smooth whines of slide and elegantly fluttering single notes.
Jeff Beck, who played on the 13th, kept to himself, fronting a small combo that, with just drums, bass and violin, often sounded like a compact Mahavishnu Orchestra. That was literally so, when Beck covered "You Know, You Know" from that group's The Inner Mounting Flame with stripped-down crunch and artfully manipulated harmonics.
Beck's band was also notable for its front line of women. (They includied singer Beth Hart, who delivered Howlin' Wolf's "I Ain't Superstitious" like a higher-pitched Janis Joplin.) That is because Crossroads, for all of its depth of feeling and welcoming air, is a brotherhood. Clapton's extended tribe of peers, disciples and fellow travellers is largely male. Previous Crossroads have featured Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt, but they are primarily known as singer-songwriters. And the one female guitar star invited to the Garden, Susan Tedeschi, was strangely limited to a vocal cameo with Los Lobos.
But that was a rare blown chance in a pair of evenings where everything ran like clockwork and no one was phoning in their reputations. Clapton was still handing out songs and solos at the end of the second night. After Richards left the stage, Clapton introduced Robertson, whose two numbers included Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." Robertson sang it in a barely melodic but affecting growl framed with tremolo shivers of guitar. Andy Fairweather-Low got another shot, this time for a roaring "Gin House Blues," a 1967 hit for his British-beat band Amen Corner.
The finale was Clapton's current-tour encore, a cover of Joe Cocker's "High Time We Went," with most of the bill spread out on either side of the host (Richards and Beck had apparently gone home) and each guitarist taking a couple of last choruses in turn. Nothing outstanding was played, at least compared to all that went before, and there weren't enough amp cords to go around. (Rosenwinkel and Trucks shared one).
But it was a grand sight: friends, apostles and inspirations, each showing the others a little more of what he's got, with Clapton beaming in the middle. No one, it seems, enjoys this hustle and challenge more than he does. There is talk that this will be Clapton's last Crossroads – at least that he will personally stage and oversee. But if someone else picks up the mantle, it is a very safe bet Clapton will be there anyway, lining up for his share of the solos.