Crossroads Guitar Festival - a review
This weekend I was in Dallas to attend Eric Clapton's Crossroad Guitar Festival. It was about the most amazing three days I can possibly remember or describe. I mean, everyone in blues and rock was there! The first day of the festival was exciting enough for me because at about noon, George Lynch came on stage and did some solo playing. This was great because I was a big Dokken fan when I was younger, and finally even saw them live as they were breaking up. So that was very exciting, except that the music sucked. Don't get me wrong, George Lynch is a plenty talented guitarist... but he was trying to play along with this shitty backing track. Enough about him, let's hit some real highlights. About an hour later Johnny Lang played a blues set. It was pretty good, but all I remember is the oppressive heat and humidity of Dallas. Now, I can handle heat as I grew up in Phoenix. However, we were in the Dallas sun from noon to about midnight and I was beat!
After Johnny Lang, some guy named Dan Tyminski played an acoustic set with another guy. It was great music, very simple and soulful. I also noticed he sounded like the dude from 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?'. As I was thinking this, I noticed Eric Clapton sneak across the side of the stage and sit down in the wings to enjoy these acoustic guys. I freaked! I was seeing Eric Clapton in person only about 15 feet away from me (did I mention we got aREAL good spot on the lawn near the stage? That is why we got there at noon). Clapton was just hanging out and bobbing his head to the music, really digging it. I could see he was just there as a fan, so I thought that was cool.
Next was JJ Cale. I knew the name, but wasn't sure how. Well, just as the band is tuning up I see Clapton sitting onstage. Then, I look closer and I see he has a guitar in his lap. Holy shit, Clapton is about to play! This was really exciting because Clapton wasn't supposed to turn up until tomorrow (Sunday) for the big Cottonbowl show. So they go into 'After Midnight' and I remember this is the guy who wrote that song (which Clapton made famous schilling Miller beer for in the 80s) Also what was cool is because we were so close, I saw this before anyone else. They had big jumbotron TVs on either side of the stage and when they finally showed Clapton on stage, people came running forward. Then, JJ Cale does a cover of Cocaine. Allow me to expound on the zaniness here. JJ is covering a Clapton song with Clapton as his backing band. But wait: JJ is doing 'Cocaine', which is another Cale song Clapton made famous. Did anyone get JJ the memo that his whole festival is for one purpose and that is to get money to Clapton's rehab facility? I mean, it was surreal... Clapton was cool with it though, so I was too.
So about half an hour later (and about $100 in beer, later) this is who is onstage. Wait, allow to explain who is supposed to be onstage right now: Buddy Guy, Jimmy Vaughn, & Robert Cray. Well, we got these amazing players... plus Clapton and Robert Randolph all on stage together... in front of a few hundred spectators (again, the real even wasn't supposed to be until tomorrow). And, I had about the best seats in the house: an un-obstructed view above the crowd on a grass landing where we relaxed all day on a blanket (whereas the late comers had to stand on concrete all day).
That was Saturday, and I was sufficiently pleased that I had seen the greatest guitar moment in history. I should also mention that in there somewhere the Robert Randolph Family band played and just tore the place up. There were sick! The music had a very Allman Brothers feel - technically gifted but always rooted in blues and healing.
Here comes Sunday >
We get there at about 3 pm, to the Cotton Bowl. In case you are wondering, the Cotton Bowl is a piece of shit 60 year old football stadium with about the most unpleasant accommodations for seating you could imagine. That as ok though, because we were here for bigger things. We got opening sets from James Taylor, Joe Walsh, Jimmy Vaughn, Bo Diddley, Carlos Santana & Vince Gill. They were all great except for Vince Gill who sucked. Now, I am not just saying he sucked because he sings country. Actually, after 20 or so hours in a row of nothing but blues, I was happy for a change. Dude had two keyboardists and four guitarists on stage (including him). The result was completely muddled and watered down shit. Some bright spots were Joe Walsh's set which was awesome, and James Taylor as well. I should note though, I would have done the whole drive just to see James Taylor play. Joe Walsh came out during James Taylor's set and played lead guitar for Steamroller blues. It was pretty great!
So next up is BB King. Jimmy Vaughn (you know him from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and also is the big brother of Stevie Ray Vaughn) and his band were the backing band. This is common in blues, they don't carry their own bands around... the use 'house' bands. His band does an intro and he brings out BB. Now, BB is old... really really old. BB had to sit in a chair and have his guitar handed to him. You can imagine though, he tore the place up with his enthusiasm and love for the crowd. I could intimate from the stuff going on stage that BB hadn't rehearsed with Jimmy's band before the show (again, this is very common in the blues), so BB kept giving signals to Jimmy to pass on to the band (stuff like: one more chorus, you solo first, I'll take the second etc). BB got tired of looking over his should to communicate (because BB was front center stage and Vaughn & his band were way back trying to not draw the spotlight from BB. So BB tells Jimmy to just sit down next to him and that is what he did.
A few minutes later, I spy Clapton on the wings of the stage and he turned up to do some playing too. So, they got Clapton a chair too. Imagine this, the great guitars players of the world are sitting in a half circle on these shitty metal chairs you remember from band. They were all sitting close enough to be able to speak to each other without the mikes (only BB had a microphone in fact at this point). So they do a song together and a roadie brings out another chair onto the stage. Who now? Buddy Guy. Lemme tell you something folks, I walk away from this weekend with a LOT of new appreciation and knowledge of the blues. I walk away from this weekend with Buddy Guy as my new favorite guitarist and blues guy. His style and energy were so commanding, that everyone around him had fun. I realized one of the great musical differentiators was that he played his solos with distortion. Everyone else uses clean tones, but Buddy's distortion really cut through and delivered.
So I am seeing the greatest guitarists alive (yes yes I know about the Warren Haynes piece I wrote last month. I wish he was there, he would have been welcomed without question). Some roadies approaches Clapton (can I just call him Clapton now? We were pretty close at this point) and whispers something. So then Clapton grabs BB's mike and announces John Mayer. So the roadies bring out another chair and out comes John Mayer. Now, if you only know John Mayer from the radio you have NO idea how good a guitar player he is. Seriously, John Mayer held his own with those guys on stage trading blues licks. Read that last sentence again, because after playing guitar for the last 15 years... I have a strong grip on who can cut it and who can't. So for the next half hour or so, these guys all sat together on stage with their strats on their laps and traded licks. BB ran the whole thing. He called the songs, and told the guys when to solo, so they didn't all try and solo at the same time.
There was a really cool moment that happened after John Mayer played for a few minutes. They didn't show it on the jumbotron, but I saw this with my own two eyes. After Mayer really nailed a great blues piece, BB looks over at Clapton and gives him the thumbs up... as if to say "Hey, this kid is really alright!". My guess is that none of these guys had played with Mayer, and most probably knew him as a cheese Clear Channel drone. However, after a few minutes on stage there was no question of his abilities. In fact, BB left after a bit, along with Clapton. So, Buddy Guy and John Mayer stayed on stage and just rocked for a while.
That was an ultimate life experience for me. I was half inspired to go back to my hotel room and rock on my stratocaster (which I had brought) and half inspired to never bother playing guitar again because these guys had mastered it. On top of all this, the whole damn trip was free. I had won a local radio station contest and they sent me out with airplane tickets, concert tickets, and a hotel room for me and my wife. So besides that being the best concert and weekend of my life, the whole thing cost us about $200 out the door... and half that was just beer. I got back to the hotel around 1 am and had to wake up to do a radio station promo at 8 am. The shows and the weekend were so very much to process that I had four pages of notes to reference for when I spoke to the station. See, the morning DJ Brett is a musical knowledge god and extremely intelligent. So, I couldn't call in after the station dropped a couple of grand on my vacation and say "Dude, it was rad". The morning DJ (Brett) also writes a weekly column on jazz for the Denver Post. For me, just to speak with 'the sage' was an honor completely independent of all that.
Well, I am going to go now... until I think of some more stuff. I have pictures off all of this, but you can't see them. The reason is I kinda scammed my way into getting a press pass for the weekend. So, I certainly can't publish the images in question because I don't own their likeness. But, if you come over this weekend with some beer I will show you on the computer. Thanks for reading, thanks for your patience, thanks to KBCO for sending me out to Dallas, and thanks to Eric Clapton for putting together the greatest guitar summit in history. Know that they filed all of this with 6 or 7 high def cameras... so expect a DVD of the whole thing.
oh yeah, and ZZ Top closed the show (as opposed to Clapton). They were great, but seemed like a strange headliner and closer for such a festival. Oh well, I figure we were in Texas and those guys are probably bigger than jesus there.
* Here is a link to a picture of me in Dallas in front of the 'World's Largest Amp'.
** I am sorry y'all. This really needs to be tightly edited. However, I have been up for 4 days straight with the blues. I had to get this one out, and I'll tighten it up later.