Guitar-loving fanatics that scored tickets to the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2019 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, on September 20 and 21, 2019, knew before they stepped into the arena that this was a true bucket-list event – and not one of them walked away disappointed.
This epic gathering of amazing guitar talent, curated by guitar hero Eric Clapton (the only three-time inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), spanned two days of incredible live music. Each session lasted for over four hours and featured performances by some of the greatest guitar players alive. And just to add to the almost surreal, one-of-a-kind happenings, music fan and comic genius Bill Murray reigned as the master of ceremonies both nights, donating his time for the cause – as did all the musicians as well.
The Crossroads Guitar Festival is a fundraiser for Clapton’s rehab facility on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Since recovering from his own drug addiction years ago, Clapton has been supportive of other recovery programs; he founded the Crossroads Centre Antigua facility in 1998. He has put together the guitar festival every few years at various locations. It is an extremely hot ticket for an event that happens so rarely – this was the first one in six years. Now that Clapton is near the end of his touring career, the opportunities to see him perform with his band or with other guitar greats is very limited.
Crossroads 2019 Night One
The Friday, September 20th show opened with Louisiana’s bayou slide guitar master Sonny Landreth. Clapton has been a fan for years and has invited Landreth to open the 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013 editions of Crossroads. Landreth played a few of his signature songs that (as always) demonstrated his technical expertise and identifiable sound.
Bill Murray surprised the crowd by teasing that “a young guy I think you will like will be out next,” which turned out to be Clapton. The legendary blues-rock star came out and sat at the center of the stage with an acoustic guitar to thunderous applause and cheering. Joined by his band, including guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, the band did an acoustic mini-set that included beautiful versions of “Wonderful Tonight,” “Lay Down Sally,” “Tears in Heaven” and the 1923 Jimmy Cox blues standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
Throughout the two-night extravaganza, the big main stage had to go through equipment changes as bands came on and offstage. While that was happening, performers popped up to play on smaller, spotlighted side stages. After Clapton’s set, 11-time Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt, along with Alan Darby and four-time Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’ sat together on the small side stage, playing a slow blues song. Raitt and Keb’ Mo’ traded vocals and all three took guitar solos.
Citizen Cope and his band followed on the big stage. Cope played a few of his tunes including “Bullet and a Target,” “Justice” and “Gonna Rise.” Gary Clark Jr. came out to join Cope for a scorching solo on “Gonna Rise.”
Nine-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow and her band hit the main stage next. She entertained the crowd with “If It Makes You Happy” and “Steve McQueen,” with help from Doyle Bramhall II. Crow introduced “Live Wire,” a song from her new album that she recorded with a few special guests. One of those special guests, Bonnie Raitt, came out to sing the duet. The set finished with “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” Young shredder James Bay came out for the closer and held his own as he and Audley Freed traded intense solos.
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer James Burton and legendary finger-picker Albert Lee did a short set on the side stage. Lee’s “That’s Alright Mama” drew loud applause. Things stayed loud as four-time Grammy winner Jimmie Vaughan strolled onto the main stage with his great band. They opened with an instrumental before launching into “We Gotta Roll” and “No One to Talk to (But The Blues).” Vaughan then called out for Bonnie Raitt, who joined him for a couple of vocal and guitar duets. They did Vaughan’s “Baby, Please Come Home” and the Webb Pierce and Mel Tillis classic “Ain’t Never Seen Nobody Like You.”
Raitt left the stage and Vaughan asked the crowd if they wanted to hear some Texas guitar music. The audience responded with thunderous applause as Vaughan introduced Billy Gibbons. Gibbons and Vaughan played ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” with each taking creative solos. They closed the set with “Le Grange.”
Doyle Bramhall II and Gary Clark Jr. did a sweet cover of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” on the side stage while the staff prepared the main stage for Marcus King’s talented band. They filled that stage and tore it up. The young guitar wizard belted out soulful lyrics and wailed on his guitar during “How Long” and “Goodbye Carolina.” The crowd really got into his magical playing as his hot band did a medley of Willy Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
As the crew reset the stage for the next act, Bill Murray came out and was goofing with the crowd before Sheryl Crow joined him, dressed in a tight, ratty Peter Frampton t-shirt. She said when she was 13, she went to her first concert and it was Frampton. She was blown away and kept the shirt all these years. Murray and Crow tried to auction it off to the high rollers in the front rows before they introduced Frampton and his band.
The crowd went wild and Frampton opened with an instrumental version of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind.” He told the rapt audience the he was thrilled to be at Crossroads, then added that he was playing a black Gibson guitar that he lost 30 years ago, just recently getting it back; that beautiful axe was one of the guitars he used on the seminal Frampton Comes Alive album. As the crowd buzzed, he started the memorable opening notes for “Do You Feel Like We Do.”
That signature Frampton tune turned into an extended jam and the 69-year-old guitar virtuoso eventually used his distinctive talk box to alter his vocals. After the song, Frampton gushed about “what an honor” it was to be there and that it would be the first time he ever played with Eric Clapton. As the crowd went nuts, Clapton came out from the wings and the legendary duo embraced before they began playing the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Each took amazing solos and the song finally wound down. Before walking off the stage, Frampton told the rapt crowd that “you watched a dream come true.”
Murray came back out and said that there is only one person with the guts and the chops to follow that act. As a few musicians started playing onstage, a screaming guitar could be heard off in the wings. Murray introduced two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and eight-time Grammy winner Jeff Beck. Murray exited as Beck came out and proceeded to show the audience why he deserved the closing set. He played a few intense instrumentals including “Led Boots.”
The biggest surprise of the night was when Johnny Depp walked out with a guitar to join Beck’s band. The famous actor added “rock star” to his resume in 2015 when he and Alice Cooper formed the Hollywood Vampires, but no one expected him to perform with Beck. Depp sang and played rhythm guitar as Beck continued to wail away.
After a few songs, Jimmy Hall, the Southern rock-soul singer and longtime Beck collaborator, came out of the wings. He sang powerful versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” with support from Depp. Beck ranged back and forth across the stage while producing magical sounds with his Stratocaster before finally closing the epic set and first night of Crossroads 2019.
Crossroads 2019 Night Two
Friday’s lengthy session turned out to be a sprint in comparison to the second night of the Crossroads Guitar Festival. The Saturday show spanned over eight hours with an emphasis on the blues and featured more sit-ins by Clapton, as well as a mind-blowing closing set by the legend. The evening started out with pedal-steel master Robert Randolph and his Family Band. Randolph played lap steel for “Cut ‘Em Loose,” “Cry Over Me” and “Baptize Me.” For the gospel-oriented “Strange Train” Randolph played a guitar-like portable lap-steel instrument that let him bound around the stage.
Doyle Bramhall II came out next with some friends. Bill Murray joined the longtime Clapton collaborator, singing Howlin’ Wolf’s “Going Down Slow.” Murray carried an electric guitar, but it was only as a prop as he watched Bramhall wail away on the blues standard. Soon Derek Trucks, along with the Tedeschi Trucks horns and background singers, joined the fun, as did session drummer Jim Keltner, who has recorded with Clapton over the years. The big group played a great cover of Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” Susan Tedeschi and the remaining TTB members came out for a raucous version of Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone” to close out the set.
Young British guitarist Bill Misch played on the side stage, joined by eight-time Grammy winner John Mayer for one song, to the delight of the audience. Mayer was the new kid during his first Crossroads appearance in 2004. Misch was six at the time and says Mayer is a major influence. Once Misch’s set ended, the middle of the main stage lit up and a massive percussion set sat at its center. Bill Murray introduced Pedrito Martinez, the brilliant Cuban percussionist and his band. Eric Clapton surprised the crowd by joining the band, and he and Martinez traded solos as everyone went crazy.
James Bay, another British guitar master and fine vocalist, followed on the main stage. He played a few of his excellent tunes and did a blues-tinged cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” before ending his set. Things really heated up as three-time Grammy-winners Los Lobos came out next, joined by Susan Tedeschi and Eric Clapton. They played “Made to Break Your Heart” as Tedeschi and David Hidalgo sang verses while Clapton, Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas traded solos. After the song, Tedeschi and Clapton left the stage and Los Lobos played several of their Latin-influenced songs before ending their set.
Keb’ Mo’ followed on the side stage. He did a solo set of his smooth blues material. As he wrapped up, Murray introduced five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray, who came out with his band on the main stage. Cray sang and played his silky guitar grooves on “I Shiver,” “I Don’t Care,” “You Move Me” and “You Had My Heart.”
The blues theme continued as Murray introduced a legend, together with a young buck who is himself becoming a legend, as Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang took the main stage, along with Guy’s band. Guy is a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and eight-time Grammy winner, while Lang has one Grammy. They proceeded to blast some explosive blues as they played Guy’s “Cognac” as well as a medley of classics including Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Slim Harpo’s “King Bee.”
John Mayer returned to the spotlight on the side stage for a short solo set. He played beautiful versions of his “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” and “Neon.” Everyone could see that the main stage was being prepped for a big band as Mayer played; happily, that big band turned out to be the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The 11-piece band led by Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi are multiple Blues Music and Grammy Award winners. They played a set of their songs with a focus on Trucks’ incredible slide guitar technique.
Susan Tedeschi said a few heartfelt words about their departed friend and inspiration, B.B. King, before the band launched into his “How Blue Can You Get.” They followed with one of their regular covers, Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep On Growing” and inexplicably, Clapton did not come out for the song. In spite of that oversight, Trucks mesmerized the crowd with a long, magical solo. The set ended with a blistering version of the band’s “Shame.”
Bill Murray introduced the next artist as one of Texas’ treasures and “the best-dressed man in music.” Grammy winner Gary Clark Jr. came out with his band and blazed through several of his tunes. He opened with a grungy “Bright Lights” and played beautiful versions of “Feed the Babies” and “Got My Eyes on You.” Clark thanked Eric Clapton and said his appearance at the 2010 Crossroads festival changed his life. He closed the set with “Pearl Cadillac” and a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”
Sixteen-time Grammy winner Vince Gill and his band came on next. The country music star known for his brilliant playing welcomed dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, singer Bradley Walker and guitarist Albert Lee to join him. The expanded band did a nice cover of Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time,” a song also covered by Clapton many times over the years. Douglas played his dobro and sang a countrified version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Gill then introduced one of his old friends, Joe Walsh. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and five-time Grammy winner came out of the wings and proceeded to start the familiar notes to “Rocky Mountain Way.” He followed that up with The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” to wrap up the set.
The marathon night of music concluded with the ringmaster. Eric Clapton and his band came out with Doyle Bramhall II, Pedrito Martinez and Alan Darby in tow. Clapton kept the blues theme going for his headlining show. He thanked everyone for coming and said he was humbled by the talent and performances over the last two days. As Clapton stayed front and center, the crowd was on their feet for the entire set. The band opened with “Pretending.” Clapton followed with the blues standard “Key to the Highway,” a song he recorded with Derek and the Dominos. Next up was Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
Clapton kept the audience mesmerized as he recalled another of his previous bands with a cover of Cream’s “Badge.” The band went on to Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Hearts,” which contained massive solos by Bramhall and Clapton. John Mayer came out to add another guitar for Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.” At this point the crowd was beyond ecstatic. Mayer stuck around for a slightly slowed-down version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” that ended the set.
Clapton and the band then gathered on the front of the stage for bows before walking off. The lights stayed down and the crowd yelled and begged for more. The band came back without any guests as Clapton sang and played a sultry solo in a brilliant homage to Prince’s “Purple Rain.” He thanked the crowd for their support of the Crossroads cause, then called out all of the musicians from the earlier performances for a grand finale. Everyone came on stage, creating a surreal guitar assembly line as they all played Joe Cocker’s “High Time We Went.” Each brilliant guitarist blasted a short solo as Clapton smiled and played along. The incredible two-night extravaganza finally wrapped up with all taking a massive bow along the front of the stage.
There may never again be such an amazing collection of guitar talent on one stage. The 2019 Crossroads Guitar Festival was an incredible gathering of many of the best guitarists in the world. Eric Clapton may be near the end of his illustrious career, but he still has the world-famous chops that have prompted many witnesses to his talent over the years to declare, “Clapton is God.” In addition to his astounding skill, he is incredibly generous and recognizes other great players. By putting together the Crossroads Festival, he gives fans the gift of enjoying this unbelievable assembly of world-class guitar talents and at the same time supporting a noble cause. Hopefully, Slowhand will do it again in a few years.
Live photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon ©2019.