The nearly 30,000 fans who attended Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in suburban Chicago on July 28 were treated to eleven hours of unforgettable moments, the most poignant of them courtesy of none other than B.B. King.
“I’ve been around the world, and I’ve met kings and queens,” the 81-year-old blues legend and Gibson icon said. “But I’ve never met a better man, a more gracious man, than my friend Eric Clapton.”
Was Slowhand, watching intently from the side of the stage, on the verge of tears? It sure looked like it. But King, who during his set treated the crowd to solid readings of classics like “Rock Me Baby” and “The Thrill Is Gone,” wasn’t done spreading the love. Sharing the stage with such luminaries as Hubert Sumlin, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Cray, King then faced the audience. “May I live forever,” he said. “But may you live forever and a day.”
King and his ubiquitous Gibson ES-355, better known as “Lucille,” took to the stage following a relaxed 20-minute early-afternoon set by Texan Doyle Bramhall II (who broke out a Gibson Les Paul) and another by Derek Trucks, whose performance featured wife Susan Tedeschi. Tedeschi and Michael Mattison, the Derek Trucks Band’s lead vocalist, paid tribute to Clapton with a soulful take on Derek and the Dominos’ “Anyday,” which was punctuated by a furious solo by Trucks on his Gibson Custom SG reissue.
Trucks’ set was capped off with a rousing cameo by blues-rock master Johnny Winter, whose scorching slide guitar lines played on his vintage Gibson Firebird set fire to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61.”
Sheryl Crow, meanwhile, was welcomed to the stage during a “country” portion of the show that featured Vince Gill and Albert Lee. She delivered on tunes like “If It Makes You Happy” and “Strong Enough” before sharing the microphone with Clapton on “Tulsa Time.” Up next was the venerable Los Lobos who, on a day of informal jams and casual talent assemblies, demonstrated what it means to be a tight, road-tested band. Cesar Rosas, sporting a sunburst Les Paul, drove the band on tunes like “Mas y Mas” and “Chains of Love.”
Jeff Beck took the guitar pyrotechnics to a new level and left the crowd slack-jawed with nearly an hour of virtuosity, including a stunning reading of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” But it was Clapton himself—with the early-afternoon sun having long since disappeared—who upped the emotional ante.
With Trucks and Bramhall backing him, Clapton’s 90-minute performance kept the audience on its feet throughout, touching on some of the highlights of the fabled guitarist’s career: “Tell the Truth,” “Key to the Highway,” “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” (with Trucks delivering the day’s most exciting solo), “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” and “Little Queen of Spades.” Clapton was then joined by Robbie Robertson, and they revisited The Last Waltz, jamming on “Who Do You Love?” and “Further on Up the Road.” But even a rare concert appearance by Robertson, at least on this night, couldn’t match the energy brought to the stage by Steve Winwood. The semi-Blind Faith reunion with Clapton hit on classics like “Pearly Queen,” “Presence of the Lord,” “Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Had to Cry Today,” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (sans Clapton), stoking the audience into a near-frenzy. Winwood stayed out with Clapton for a nearly 10-minute “Cocaine” (a curious choice considering the event was a fundraiser for Clapton’s Antigua rehabilitation center) and a driving “Crossroads” that Robert Johnson could never have imagined.
Chicago blues titan Buddy Guy followed and led the night to its ultimate finale, an all-star jam on “Sweet Home Chicago” that featured Clapton, John Mayer, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmie Vaughan, Johnny Winter, and Robert Cray. It was a fitting conclusion to a spectacular night. The biggest problem? It finally had to come to an end.