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Clapton's Crossroads festival was fit for a King

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Clapton's Crossroads festival was fit for a King

Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy

Bill Murray brought the laughs, and B.B. King took care of the tears. Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Jeff Beck and Steve Winwood kept stealing the show from one another. Robbie Robertson made a rare appearance. The rain stayed away. Presiding over it all was the Artist Formerly Known as God, Eric Clapton. Clapton was raised to the level of a deity in `60s England, a label that he couldn't possibly live up to. But Saturday's epic Crossroads Guitar Festival at a sold-out Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., was one for the ages. Logistically, there were difficulties: food and water ran out at many concessions stands, and the sound cut in and out, sabotaging several performances. But as morning clouds gave way to a sun-splashed afternoon, conditions were ideal for the type of collaboration and cross-generational bonding that one rarely sees at more narrowly defined festivals: Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill with Willie Nelson, Crow with Alison Krauss, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan with Hubert Sumlin, Sonny Landreth with Clapton, Johnny Winter with Trucks, and Buddy Guy and a cast of dozens for the encore. Crossroads is an excuse for Clapton to gather some of his friends and favorite artists to play an 11-hour show for his pet charity, the Crossroads Centre for the chemically dependent in Antigua. The first gathering, in Dallas in 2004, produced a 4 million-selling DVD. This one was even better. It had Murray, who served as comically genial emcee, cheerleader and budding guitar hack, attempting to play Van Morrison's "Gloria" before a grinning Clapton took over. It had Tedeschi, who nearly upstaged a set by her husband, Trucks, with a two-song cameo that including a thundering version of Derek and the Dominoes' "Anyday." Trucks was a standout in a day of stellar guitarists; during Clapton's set, he lifted every song to a higher plane with his passionate slide work, and wouldn't let the band leader coast. Clapton took the challenge, slugging it out toe to toe with his young protege on a towering "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad." Robertson, who quit the Band and the road in 1976 and hasn't played live much since, paid tribute to Bo Diddley by growling out "Who Do You Love." But after jamming on "Further on up the Road," Robertson exited, and it felt more like a missed opportunity than a triumphant return. That was not the case with Winwood, who parted ways with the festival's namesake in 1969 when Clapton abruptly quit the group they had formed, Blind Faith. The singer quickly re-established what had been lost. His soul-dipped vocals elevated "Presence of the Lord" and "Can't Find My Way Home," and his underrated guitar-playing came to the fore on a spiraling version of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy." Was it possible? A musician best known as a singer and keyboardist also walked away with the day's best guitar solo? Beck might have an argument with that. With his rooster hair and vest making him look as though he'd stepped out of a 1970 concert poster, the British virtuoso didn't so much play his guitar as make it speak in tongues. His jazz-fusion quartet kept pace, particularly bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, who played with a confidence and panache that stamped her as a future star. Beck closed his set with a stunning reinvention of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," re-creating the elaborate vocal melodies and orchestrations with little more than six strings. King gave what amounted to a farewell performance, and just about everyone in the place knew it. Clapton's eyes glistened as the 81-year-old master performed. He playfully leered through "Rock Me Baby," talking trash with his guitar, Lucille. Then he switched on the rage for a scarifying "The Thrill is Gone." King raised a cup to his fans: "When they lay me off to rest, may the last voices I hear be yours." Flanked by Cray, Vaughan and Sumlin, and with Clapton looking on from the wings, it was King's moment and King's show from then on.


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