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'Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013': Deified and Defiant

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.

Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013

Cast: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, John Mayer, Los Lobos, Robert Cray, The Allman Brothers Band, Keb' Mo', Andy Fairweather Low, Keith Urban
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-08-13 (Fathom Events)

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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