Clapton’s Crossroads Festival lights up Madison Square Garden and Rock NYC’s Iman Lababedi brings us this review
By Iman Lababedi
Eric Clapton‘s “Crossroads Guitar Festival” was three and a half hours deep when the Chicago Blues giant Buddy Guy, the man who played IN HOWLING WOLF’S BAND, came on stage and blew everyone else off stage. I am not a blues fan myself, the idiom is all form all day long and it bores me unless the person performing is on a whole other level and while the Benefit show had certainly moments, it had long periods of sustained tedium, at least three sets had me shaking my head in doubt.
But Buddy Guy, 50 years into his career, knows how to give us what we want and in a crowd pleasing turn with Robert Randolph never better on steel guitar and 14 year old protegee Quinn Sullivan. In some ways it reminds me of Bon Jovi at 12-12-12, Guy sized us up and thrilled us down. With three songs he had a major blues meltdown, the loud/soft dichotomy all sharp Chicago turns and sexiness with an outstanding “Let The Door Knob Hit Ya’. Guy performed the song on 2010′s Living Proof, but while it is a thriller on a draggy album there, it is a showstopping, crowd stopping and Guy acted out on us, it was one part pure joy, one point acting the role, and one perfect blues song.
There is a reason why, for all his greatness, Eric Clapton isn’t Buddy Guy, and it is because he is too much the musicologist. Clapton has the talent and he has the passion but he doesn’t have the faith to sell it up. Guy loves Clapton, it is through Clapton that Guy signed to Silvertone Records for his career third act and Guy canceled another gig to be here tonight and pledge support for Claptons extremely great rehab clinic: the right way to give back, a smart, great charity which is helping folks get and remain sober on the gorgeous island of Antigua. When I get straight I tend to take a couple of days off work and cold turkey but a trip to Antigua sounds like a lot more fun.
Meanwhile, the trio are riffing and riffing at the speed of sound and Buddy Guy is long gone and as deep in as he gets when he shakes himself loose and looks around him. “I could play this all night long…” he says, shaking his head and launching the trio into “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” and Robert Randolph I finally get, I finally agree that this Pedal Steel guitarist is an absolute master. His solo here had the audience up at arms.
But the thing with Buddy is, like Armstrong, like Muddy and BB and Little Walter and all these guys, they are song and dance men there to entertain with their art and not art with their entertain. And all the white boys, even today, are there to art with their entertain. And this isn’t some racist, blacks are great, whites suck, white English blues fellas, Clapton and Beck and all those Bluesbreakers, not only saved a generation of Blues greats from the chitlin’ circuit they forced the blues to become accepted as a great art form. But they can be more than a touch pedantic.
For instance, the unspeakable Citizen Cope. I’d like to take his fucking pony tail and dip it in an inkwell. The guy has the most annoying voice on the planet and along with Doyle Bramhall played a Southern rock band to very little effect. Gary Clark played back up and should have refused. A duet with Alice Smith was pretty good but otherwise, this didn’t happen at all. With all due respect to the former Arc Angel, much like band mate Charlie Sexton, they are born to be sidemen. He is the Pusha T of blues rock, born to stand to the side. No harm in that unless you are listening to it.
Sometimes I wonder if Robert Cray wouldn’t be better off as a session player, as a lead singer he lacks charisma but on the side he can hijack a song. This is completely true when he brings out BB King for a blistering “Sweet Sixteen”. I decided to boycott BB King years ago. It was just too depressing watching the 87 year old man come out one more time and just not have the concentration any more but damn, he was so great Friday night. It is no slight to say that Bb King is past it, he is 87 year olds. Bernie Williams was one of my favorite outfielders of all time but I don’t want to see him Center Field today. The same goes for BB King. But his grin is infectious, he looks like Walter Pigeon in “Rio Bravo” and the had a close up of his fingers and BB’s eyes were closed and his head turned to the side, it was a wonderful moving thing. A little later Eric Clapton came out and Eric, Cray and King played “Everyday I Have The Blues” and better than on the extended Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out.
It really was a thrill and we could use more moments like this Or when John Mayer and Keith Urban perform Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down”, Urban’s singing was especially impressive (though it is great to hear Mayer singing at all) but it is the finger picking jam at the end of the song that stands out. These guys should tour together, half pop/country pop, half jamming.
The set opened with Clapton’s execrable acoustic solo mini set “Tears In Heaven”, “Lay Down Sally” and “Wonderful Tonight” but if that left a bad taste in your mouth, Clapton’s two songs with jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel was wonderful. The sense of Clapton trying to see what you can add to the blues and still have the the blues was palpable. Booker T and Steve Cropper played a deep soul set with “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Green Onions”, Gary Clark Jn added two songs as a one man band and cemented his position as the best young guitarslinger out there by miles, Sonny Landreth played solo on slide guitar., Earl Klugh played jazz blues and Keb Mo performed a tribute to Muddy Waters.
At which point, four hours in, I left though I would guess I missed Clapton perform an acoustic set with everyone joining in.
So, BB King and Buddy Guy were GREAT and I will definitely end my King ban and keep looking for a full Buddy Guy set. Everybody else had their moments but not nearly enough. In the end, this was about Chicago Blues, the Allman Brothers were the last act, which I missed.
(Iman Lababedi is editor at large for Rock NYC. Get more great live reviews and other content at Rock NYC Live and Recorded.