Talk about piquing one’s curiosity. The promos for the truncated pledge-drive version of the Crossroads Festival that aired on PBS in December began, “Sixty-five guitarists… 87 guitars … came to play with one man.” Cut to Eric Clapton playing the opening riff of “Layla.” Exciting? You bet!
The promo, that is. If only the actual event or its four-hour DVD documentary were near as dynamic.
The first of the set’s two discs begins promisingly enough, with a montage of stages being set up, guitars being tuned, and interview quotes from Clapton, J.J. Cale, Carlos Santana, and others, over Jimmie Vaughan’s rendition of “Texas Flood” from the event. The concert footage then begins, very much out of chronology with Clapton and his band performing “Cocaine” – which E.C. has given a P.C. makeover (not that the song was ever pro-drug) by adding the phrase “that dirty cocaine” to each stanza’s tag, “cocaine.”
The patchwork sequencing continues, jumping from the June 6 Cotton Bowl finale to sets that took place on smaller stages earlier in the weekend and back. The most interesting aspect of the festival was that it presented such a stylistic diversity of guitar players – butting classical Indian slide up against shredders, while country and folk legends swapped songs on a separate stage – but, no doubt owing to Clapton’s personal inclination, it was weighted fairly heavily towards blues.
I’m a blues fanatic, and have witnessed what seems like a million blues jams (although in actual fact it’s been closer to a mere thousand). Maybe three or four were in that special category where all cylinders were hitting, and it rose beyond yet another rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago.” The much anticipated blues jams at Crossroads (Clapton, Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray recreated the lineup of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s final show at Alpine Valley, with the addition of steel guitarist Robert Randolph and Hubert Sumlin; or Clapton, Vaughan, and Guy backing B.B. King) were, alas, pretty tame. Ironically, though, one of the strongest blues numbers of the weekend, Larry Carlton’s “Friday Night Shuffle,” is absent in favor of “Josie,” from his session days backing Steely Dan.
There are highlights, to be sure, like the acoustic bluegrass duo of Dan Tyminski and Ron Block; Vince Gill’s diesel-fueled country; Robert Cray’s soulful “Time Makes Two;” Joe Walsh and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo taking turns fronting Booker T. & The MG’s; and an especially blistering “I Shot The Sheriff” by the event’s host. And the historical pairing of Clapton backing J.J. Cale is appropriately laid-back but quite memorable.
But greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts wholes can’t be choreographed; they either happen or they don’t. Not surprisingly, the one time that those kinds of sparks fly is when Clapton joins Santana for an extended “Jingo.”
Clapton’s rendition of “Layla” is relegated to the DVD’s “special features” section – which makes little sense. Interview segments or behind-the-scenes footage are special features, but to remove Clapton’s best-known song from the actual program is kind of like shooting blanks.
The festival itself, in June in the Dallas heat, was downright grueling, but I felt lucky to be there. It’s hard to pinpoint, but in the comfort of my living room, viewing the high-definition version, there’s something lacking. It’s like having the best seat in the house, but not being part of the experience.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Mar. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.