Crossroads Guitar Festival: Toyota Park, Chicago, IL 6/26/10

"Good game so far,” Citizen Cope said to me as we are watching Team USA march down the field just about to even to score against Ghana in between sets at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival.  Sitting on a Fender bar stool behind Steve Gadd, Clapton’s drummer, and his wife, I’m thinking to myself, “What world am I in?”  Then, just before Landon Donovan tied the game at one apiece, a glass door swings open and in walks Eric Clapton with his wife Melia to check on the score.  At that point I felt like I had made it to the summit, being in the presence of all these incredible guitarists as they descended upon Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois for the 3rd ever Crossroads Guitar Festival. 

The dream originated in 2004 when Eric Clapton decided to gather the top guitarists in the world to share the same stage for a hot summer weekend festival in Dallas, Texas.  Since then, Crossroads has returned every third year, the last happening at Toyota Park in 2007 and back again at the same venue now in 2010.  Having collaborated with so many amazing musicians over the years and honoring many of the legendary blues guitar heroes from long ago, Clapton has paid tribute to those who have influenced him throughout his career and those whom he admires.  The day-long festival is a benefit for The Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a treatment center for chemically dependent persons, founded by Clapton himself in 1998.  With the help of his friends and peers, Eric Clapton once again succeeded in assembling some of the best collaborative performances on the greatest of stage, and it’s all for a good cause.

As the sun neared its peak in the sky, Bill Murray addressed the crowd and introduced Clapton as they took the stage to get the day started with a comical jam of “Who Do You Love?”  After thanking fans for coming and praying for good weather, the day was underway as the music began on time at high noon.  “He’s the man who always answers my invitation first,” Clapton said of Sonny Landreth as he handed over the stage to the slide virtuoso for the first set of the afternoon. 

Following Landreth was one of my favorite performers on the bill, the always exciting and incredibly talented Robert Randolph and the Family Band.  With a fantastic new record out titled We Walk This Road, that happens to be produced by the great T Bone Burnett, Robert Randolph opened with “Traveling Shoes” off of the new album.  Returning for the third time to Crossroads, Robert Randolph tore up the stage as he ripped through unbelievable solos on his candy red pedal steel guitar.  Randolph’s sister, the over joyous and very energetic Lenesha Randolph, provided great soulful backup vocals, but she was featured the most on “Back to the Wall” off their new record.

The blues have been very much alive in music as the torch has been passed from generation to generation over the years.  “This next performer Clapton calls, ‘the keeper of the flame’,” Bill Murray said of Robert Cray, referring to his role in nourishing the blues.  I first saw Robert Cray in 2007 when he opened for Clapton in Philadelphia, and my mom and I still talk about how distinct his voice and tone were when we hear him play his song “Poor Johnny.”  Cray honored blues legend Hubert Sumlin as he brought him out along with Jimmie Vaughan for Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” towards the end of his set.

Backstage, the main lounge was filled jumbo screens broadcasting the concert and tons of guitars for artists and guests to test out and play.  As I was admiring the wall of Strats behind the Fender booth and chatting with a custom builder, in walked John Mayer with a small entourage.  Once again it was like, “How did I land here?” as I was standing next to one of my guitar heroes from this generation.  It was so cool to watch Mayer has he tested out different guitars and playing recognizable riffs from his song “Belief” and he was nice enough to say hello and get a picture with me. 

The day transitioned into somewhat lighter guitar vibe as Earl Klugh took the stage with his nylon stringed acoustic guitar.  Klugh brought a unique sound as he played acoustic instrumental melodies backed behind his band that included Yonrico Scott of The Derek Trucks Band.  Klugh looked like one of the happiest performers to be at Crossroads as he wore a wide smile on his face through his entire set.

After a short break following Klugh’s performance, Bill Murray came out dressed up as Elvis holding a big Chicago Blackhawks flag that prompted fans to go wild, given that they had just defeated the Philadelphia Flyers for Lord Stanley’s Cup a short while ago.  Doing his best Allen Iverson impression, “we talkin’ about practice,” Murray talked about how he was practicing at getting better since the last Crossroads, now knowing a grand total of two songs on guitar. 

A man who definitely has been practicing since the last Crossroads was next to take the stage, as John Mayer returned with Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan; the original John Mayer Trio.   I felt that his last album, Battle Studies, was a complete letdown disaster, luckily Mayer left all of that material at home and brought forth the incredible blues guitar work that he harbors.  The only time you see him truly come to life is live in concert and that he did on Saturday.  Featuring two of his own songs, the Trio played “Who Did You Think I Was?” off of Try! and “Vultures” from Continuum.  Mayer also covered Bill Withers’ hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” during his late afternoon set.  John Mayer’s solos had characteristics of Stevie Ray and his entire half hour set was definitely one of the high points at Crossroads.

Following John Mayer was an awesome collaboration made up of multiple generations of guitar players.  The legendary Buddy Guy was joined on stage by Rolling Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood and 29 year old Johnny Lang, who already has made tides shift in the blues community.  “I don’t know how you feel, but I feel like I’m in heaven,” Buddy Guy said as he played alongside Wood and Lang.  “When I get into this kind of company, I wish I could play all night,” he continued.  The three jammed on the Stones’ “Miss You” and Buddy’s original “Five Long Years.”  Lang’s facial expression and emotion that he put into playing was incredible and it was if he was possessed by the music as he soloed alongside one of his blues heroes.

The set that I was looking forward to the most at Crossroads was definitely the Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band, taking the stage for an early evening slot.  People have said that Derek Trucks is Clapton’s guitar god, and Trucks definitely has the virtuosity to back it up.  This was my first time seeing Susan Tedeschi perform and I was blown away by her powerful vocals, which I have heard on many of her albums and lately on Trucks’ last record, Already Free.  Filling in for The Allman Brothers, the Trucks/Tedeschi combo brought out Warren Haynes and Johnny Winter for Hendrix’s “Red House” and gave the stage to Haynes as he took the lead on “Soulshine.”  In the year off from his own band, Trucks has been touring with Tedeschi around the country and playing festivals.  The two also appeared on Herbie Hancock’s latest release, The Imagine Project, where they were featured on Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain,” the song which they closed out their forty five minute Crossroads set with.

With two of his members, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, working with Herbie Hancock in the past year, Jeff Beck did some rearranging and brought in bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Narada Michael Walden to even out the group.  Regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all-time, Jeff Beck blew away the audience with his fierceness on stage as he controlled sound with his right hand while sporting his signature sleeveless shirt look and shiny arm cuff.  Smith brought heavy distortion to her bass while providing lead vocals on “What If I” while Beck featured his lead distinct intonation on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”  Closing out the set on a high note, Beck featured an amazing rendition of “Nessun Dorma” that left fans in awe of his ability.

As darkness fell on the Crossroads Guitar Festival, Bill Murray, dressed up as Jimi Hendrix, brought out the host of the event who took the stage for a headlining set around 8:45pm.  To a roaring crowd, Clapton fittingly opened with “Crossroads” and dove into the blues standard “Key To The Highway.”  In rare form, Clapton tore through mean solos during “I Shot The Sherriff” and “Cocaine.”  Though I do wonder why Clapton opted to play “Cocaine,” during a festival whose total profits are going to benefit a drug rehabilitation center.  I would have loved to hear “Forever Man,” “My Father’s Eyes” or “Layla” in place of it.  Bringing out friend, and former band-mate, Steve Winwood, for a few songs, the duo closed out the main set with “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” 

As Clapton promised a special guest still to come, a short break preceded a sit down set as Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan joined the legendary B.B. King on stage towards the end of the show.  There exist several forces, past and present, greater than Clapton himself: one is Robert Johnson whom he cites as his primary influence and another is B.B. King.  With King in total control of the direction of the show, he chatted with the audience, thanked everyone for sticking around and started the three song set with “Rock Me Baby.”  Armed with Lucille in hand, King popped in on solos as each guitarist seemed to be featured.  Clapton, in total admiration of King waited as B.B. talked, and talked, and fed off of his energy throughout, as King continued with verses to “Key To The Highway” and “The Thrill Is Gone.” 

After the final set, mostly all of the guitarists returned for a final encore of “Sweet Home Chicago” that featured Buddy Guy and Susan Tedeschi on lead vocals and everyone else backing on guitar.  It was amazing to see so many eras of music represented on one stage at the same time as Clapton and King sat at the center of the collaboration surrounded by their peers.  The benefit truly unites all these musicians who respect and admire one another enough to devote one day out of their busy schedules to one day of great music.  As Clapton thanked everyone again for coming out, he hinted to the audience that there would most certainly be another Crossroads in a couple of years.  After an incredible weekend in guitar heaven, the event still seemed surreal to me as I was thinking back on all the great performances from Saturday.  I’m already looking forward to the next Crossroads, wherever and whenever that may be. 

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