CHICAGO — In the months leading up to his Crossroads Guitar Festival on Saturday at Toyota Park in south suburban Bridgeview, Ill., Eric Clapton had been saying it would be his last.
But deep into Saturday’s 11-hour showcase for some of his ax-wielding mentors, peers and disciples, a smiling Clapton changed his tune.
“This was going to be the last one,” he said, “but I don’t think it will be. ... We’re gonna have to do it again.”
You can guess the reaction from the sun-dazed capacity audience to that promise.
It’s not certain why Clapton changed his mind, but I’m betting it had a lot to do with the way the third incarnation of his charity concert unfolded. In each of these festivals, the British rock icon has appeared energized, affable and a good deal looser than when simply playing his own shows. His multiple appearances Saturday only affirmed the notion that Eric Clapton was placed on this Earth to play guitar with his friends. Why quit now, especially when he’s still playing at such a high level, with such obvious enthusiasm? The key to gauging Clapton’s engagement: Watch those legs twitch and bend when he solos. On Saturday, the twitch was in full effect.
Dressed like a shaggy, semi-retired hippie in his baggy shorts and jeans and professorial glasses, Clapton was a strong presence throughout the long day, beginning with a scorching duet alongside Sonny Landreth during the opening set and wrapping up while seated next to blues icon B.B. King, who led the capacity audience through a leisurely, and sometimes lascivious, “Rock Me Baby.”
Blues uncut, high on musicianship and low on theater, was the order of the day. Though Clapton’s hand-picked lineup included nods to jazz (Earl Klugh), country (Vince Gill) and folk (Bert Jansch, Stefan Grossman), it skewed heavily toward the blues tradition that gave his young life purpose. The performers tailored their sets accordingly. ZZ Top ignored its biggest MTV-era hits in favor of grunge-encrusted boogie, with Billy Gibbons adding a couple shovels full of gravel to his insinuating baritone mumble. John Mayer abandoned his pop-idol persona to jam with drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino; indeed, a drummer as mighty as Jordan probably wouldn’t have tolerated “Your Body is a Wonderland,” so Mayer dug into Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” and did a respectable job.
Though performers such as Mayer and Sheryl Crow helped fill seats, it was the elder statesmen who were treated like royalty. Hubert Sumlin played with an oxygen tank at his side helping him breathe, but the late Howlin Wolf’s right-hand man was a spry presence. He offered an after-hours take on Wolf’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” augmented by moaning horns and a sprinkle of piano as his fingers worked spider-like patterns on the guitar strings. Bert Jansch, who canceled a 2009 tour while battling lung cancer, held the vast stage by himself with the melancholy songs and nuanced finger-picking that made the U.K. folkie one of the most influential guitarists of the ‘60s, his imprint left on artists ranging from Jimmy Page to Neil Young. And Buddy Guy, at 73, again inspired awe with his boldly dissonant guitar-playing, combined with a personality that epitomized mannish-boy mischief and potency. Veering between moments of inscrutable stillness and explosive violence, Guy turned on his mega-watt smile and the entire stadium appeared to be his for the taking. A loose take on the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” was clearly inspired by the jovial presence of one of Guy’s “sideman,” the Stones’ Ronnie Wood, who raked out a few nasty solos of his own.
The next generation was represented by Texan Gary Clark Jr., who impressed with a driving brand of trance-blues as part of a set with Doyle Bramhall, and the cherubic, pony-tailed Derek Trucks, who played slide guitar with an expressiveness and volatility that echoed the late Duane Allman while accompanying his equally intense wife, Susan Tedeschi.
Though there were a few slow spots — Citizen Cope appeared lost in front of the vast crowd as a solo performer, sound problems sabotaged a short set by Grossman, and a frail Johnny Winter struggled audibly as he negotiated Hendrix’s “Red House” — the day ended with a run of fine performances.
Jeff Beck, with a retooled band, made his guitar sing on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and exult on Sly Stone’s “Higher.” In a tradition of scene-stealing bassists (who can forget Tal Wilkenfeld from Crossroads ‘07?), Rhonda Smith brought a funk feel to her instrumentation and a growl to her vocals on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Beck later joined Clapton with salty slide-guitar accompaniment on Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker.”
Clapton had the keeper moment, though, and not coincidentally it came with Steve Winwood accompanying him. It was Winwood who put the charge into Crossroads ‘07 during Clapton’s set, and he did the same Saturday when they shared twin leads on Blind Faith’s “Had to Cry Today.” After brisk takes on Traffic’s instrumental romp “Glad” and Buddy Holly’s “Well Alright,” Clapton and Winwood delivered an epic version of “Voodoo Chile.” Winwood’s Hammond-organ swirl and Clapton’s multiple guitar crescendos were accented by soaring gospel vocals. A song later, Winwood was back on guitar to trade solos on Traffic’s buzzing acid-rock plea, “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
The crowd was jazzed, standing and cheering as Clapton and Winwood hugged their goodbyes. Clapton was visibly jazzed too. No wonder he changed his mind about the future of Crossroads.