He is considered by many to be one of the, if not the greatest guitar player of all time. His career stretches from the earliest days of the British Invasion to supporting work with that most famous of English entries, The Beatles. He continued through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, scoring legions of fans and a famous bit of graffiti which declared him some manner of deity. Whether you think Eric Clapton is “God,” or just an amazing musician who continues to have one foot in his blues-influenced beginnings and another in contemporary cultural relevancy, you cannot deny his impact on rock ‘n’ roll. From his work with Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and his impressive solo output, he remains both enigmatic and iconic, an old school pro still producing viable product some 50 years after he first joined the legendary Yardbirds.
Today, Clapton does rule as if up on high, but his reign is also more mellow and laid back than it was, say, around the time of his release of J.J. Cale’s famous song “Cocaine.” He’s no longer a lynchpin in the current guitar scene, never usurped, but definitely deemed respectable if slightly steeped in nostalgia. Gone are the days when he could sell out twenty plus shows at a single UK arena, but he still commands the attention of those for whom hits like “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Lay Down Sally,” “Tears in Heaven,” and the classic “Layla” retain their original resonance. You’ll hear at least three of those songs during the concert film that captures Clapton’s latest incarnation of the Crossroads Guitar Festival. Began in 2004 as a benefit for a drug treatment facility the guitarist founded in Antigua, it’s become synonymous as a showcase for up and coming players as well as long established stars.
Held in Madison Square Garden this past April and featuring a lineup that includes Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, John Mayer, Los Lobos, Robert Cray, The Allman Brothers Band, Keb’ Mo’, Andy Fairweather Low, and Keith Urban, among many, many others, the film is nothing fancy. In between sequences of sizzling guitar based blues and rock, the images of a city – in this case, NYC – waking up and going about its daily business, are viewed. No interviews with the artists, no nutty backstage banter or antics. Clapton comes up, offers a sad, somber reading of his requiem for his dead son, and then slowly glides into “Sally.” He then disappears for the next two hours, bringing up various special guests to wow the appreciative audience with their expert playing and performances.
This is a show for anyone who appreciates the live experience, and more importantly, the skill required to make said showcase a jam-filled improvisational delight. Many of the songs featured are standards, old Delta stompers and slinky Memphis-Chicago call-outs painted pretty by the work of some effortless fretmen. Say what you will about someone like Mayer, but his turn on stage explains a great deal about his appeal as a musician. Similarly, Keith Urban might seem like nothing but New Country eye candy, but his take on The Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down” is dynamite. Along the way, the Allmans explain their continuing relevance, Richards is positively reinvigorated, and Beck does a low key simmer that spills over into one of the movie’s most mesmerizing performances.
Don’t expect sing-along or recognizable chart toppers here. Clapton doesn’t bring “Cocaine” out during the finale (not really cause appropriate, one would argue), but he does deliver Cream’s “Sunshine.” For the most part, the music is meant as a stepping stone to more communal chemistry and solos. Crossroads is clearly a celebration of talent, the ability to play vs. the perception of same. When you consider that most music today can be auto-tuned and technologically refined to reflect near inhuman perfection, seeing actual people achieve something close to the same is startling. It’s what turns Mayer from a tabloid punchline into a legitimate six string force. It elevates musicians whose heyday may have long passed while reminding us of how rock became the predominant driving force in so many of our lives.
In fact, one could call Crossroads a musical museum piece. It’s like walking through The Louvre of sound. Sure, you get the Old Masters and the considered classics, but then someone like Keb’ Mo’ steps up and explains to you why he belongs with the others as well. There are little moments here and there that remind us of the collaborative nature of this entire process, smiles shared and those frequent stares as someone does something that make his equally impressive colleagues nod with respect. Again, there is nothing fancy about how its filmed, but there’s a clarity and cohesiveness in both set list and support that shows how strong Crossroads is as a concept. One could easily see its designs translated to keyboardists, bass players, etc.
But this is Clapton’s baby and his influence is felt throughout. It’s not just the musicians he picks, it’s the dedication with which said choices show up and perform. Richards, who often looks like he’s going through the motions with Jagger and the boys, really does shine here, and there aren’t enough good things to say about Beck’s cavalier bravura. It’s called rising to the occasion and everyone does it. Even Allman, who is stuck behind his signature Hammond organ for most of his set, steps out with an acoustic (for a powerful version of Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”) and, again, demonstrates why his career has lasted so many decades. These people can play, pure and simple. Some have spent lifetimes redefining their art and are still exploring it today. There are no slouches, no afterthought approached to up the star power. Everyone is an expert and said skills are astonishing.
So if you are interested in a concert experience without all the cloying context, if you just want to see Eric Clapton highlight dozens of defiantly talented players and performers, than this installment of the Crossroads Guitar Festival is for you. Don’t expect Q&As, backstage drama, or any kind of saccharine salutes. This is music made by musicians for other musicians (and their fans) to appreciate. God or not, Clapton demands respect for how interwoven he is throughout the course of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. This movie makes such a case loud and clear.