In 2013 Eric Clapton presented the last – at least at the time it was announced as the last – of five iterations of what was billed as the Crossroads Guitar Festival, so named because they were events held to benefit the Crossroads Centre, a drug treatment facility in Antigua founded by Clapton (and, perhaps, also having some reference to a certain song Clapton performed way back when with a band named Cream and involving Robert Johnson and the devil and all that). After having staged the prior two festivals in 2007 and 2010 as one-day outdoor events at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, just outside Chicago, in 2013 the occasion was relocated to New York’s Madison Square Garden and extended to be a two-night, full weekend affair. My attendance at both shows was never in question.
It was basically like an 8-hour guitar solo, with an overnight intermission. And the lineup contained an absolute all-star roster of blues/rock guitarists and bands, a partial list of which (and I stress partial) was as follows: B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Jimmie Vaughan, Steve Cropper, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Robbie Robertson, Robert Cray, Derek Trucks, John Mayer, Robert Randolph, Los Lobos, the Allman Brothers Band, and our esteemed host, Eric Clapton (did I mention that was only a partial list?).
For me and my co-attendees for the marathon guitarfest weekend – my friends Zing and Messiah throughout, with Julius on Friday night and Danny subbing in for Saturday – it was like some kind of a musical endurance test, but it was by no means hard to endure. Previously unfamiliar with his potent finger-picking skills, we voted Vince Gill, now slinging guitar with the Eagles, as our ‘Rookie of the Year’; an astounding performance was put on by a then-15-year-old whiz kid named Quinn Sullivan; we heard amazing Jazz-tinged sets by both John Scofield and Kurt Rosenwinkel; the common area behind our night-2 suite facilitated us literally bumping into Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks mid-show as they were working out their parts before going on; and there was even a surprisingly tolerable appearance by Keith Urban. But among the entire ridiculous assemblage of guitar masters, all the legends to those lesser knowns, the one whose set left the most lasting impression was by a young man out of Austin, Texas by the name of Gary Clark, Jr.
By now he’s won a Grammy, toured worldwide, and is plenty well established,¹ but at the time Clark was still largely under the music world radar, having just released his major label debut, Blak and Blu, roughly six months before these Crossroads concerts. It was billed then primarily as a blues album, but that tag proved overly simplistic, as the record also touched on a number of other genres including soul, R&B, and old-fashioned rock and roll. And yeah, there was also plenty of blues, but they felt…updated. Maybe modernized. This was not your father’s bluesman. I knew that when Clark and his band hit the stage at The Garden not just from their sound but also by their look: The rhythm guitarist, known as King Zapata, wore a floor-length purple robe and sported a bitching Mohawk; the drummer flaunted a sizable afro which actually flowed back-and-forth to the beat as he doggedly hammered his snare;² and Clark donned a wide-brim fedora hat and just looked like one bad dude. But the music, his brand of blues, just had a bite to it. It was edgier. It felt meaner. Nowhere was this more so than on this fiercely intense tune off Blak and Blu which closed Clark’s MSG festival set, ‘When My Train Pulls In’. Many critics’ forthcoming comparisons to Jimi Hendrix seemed, I don’t know, too convenient, maybe even lazy. Still, when Clark furiously lashes into his strings in this song’s second half, some sonic and psychedelic similarities are unmistakable. What I do know is this: After Clark finally did finish this thundering number at Crossroads, waved quickly and stalked offstage, steam seemingly rising behind him as he moved, Messiah turned to me and, barely able to speak, stammered, “That was just a…a…blistering set!!” The perfect word. And that’s how I’ll always most remember that epic weekend of all-time guitar greats, with Clark’s blistering blues.
¹In February, 2019 he’ll play Saturday Night Live, and release the hotly anticipated new album, This Land.
²Funny aside: we saw many of the performers after the show at a hotel bar across 7th Avenue (Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos put on quite a show), including Clark’s drummer, Johnny Radelat, to whom I commented I’d never seen anyone “choke up” on his sticks as much as he did, and questioned whether that didn’t just make it harder on himself, to which he cocked his head and replied sheepishly, “Story of my life.”