MUSIC REVIEW (Via NYTimes):
The Blues Mix and Mingle With Soul, Country and Rock
Crossroads Guitar Festival at Madison Square Garden
By JON PARELES
The blues was the center of the guitar universe at Eric Clapton’sCrossroads Guitar Festival, two all-star concerts with more than 30 guitarists on Friday and Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
It was the fourth Crossroads festival Mr. Clapton has presented, every three years since 2004, and musicians clearly enjoy it. The majority of this year’s headliners — among them Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Jeff Beck, Los Lobos, John Mayer, Robert Cray and Vince Gill — were recidivists, coming back for the chance to mix and match repertories and trade licks with peers.
It was the rare arena concert filled with improvisation, and a show of musical solidarity across generations, laced with friendly competition. Short sets and guests sitting in — including, frequently, Mr. Clapton himself — kept all the musicians on their toes.
It was a men’s club; women sang now and then, but over two nights and nearly 10 hours of music, only Mr. Beck’s band had women playing stringed instruments. It was also a celebration of roots and musical instincts that are under siege by mortality and pop fashion. Blues, soul, country and rock ’n’ roll were upheld and mingled. With real-time playing, note-bending expressivity and their shared vocabularies of rasp, twang and syncopation, they now show more in common than old divisions once suggested.
The concerts held intertwined stories. One was the way the blues became a trans-Atlantic dialogue. Britons like Mr. Clapton and Saturday night’s biggest surprise guest, Keith Richards, fell in love with American music and made it their own — louder, poppier, more focused on guitar solos — and then heard their ideas channeled back into American blues and rock. The set on Saturday night by the Texas bluesman Gary Clark Jr. and his band was a volcanic buildup of dynamics, velocity and distortion, unimaginable without British blues-rock (or Jimi Hendrix) but also all-American. (Mr. Clark had performed on Friday night as a one-man band, picking an acoustic guitar and playing drum and cymbals with his feet.)
Another is the dialogue between canny elders and apprentices. No one could outwit Mr. King, 87, or Mr. Guy, 76. Mr. King arrived during Mr. Cray’s set on Friday night and was brilliantly contrary: answering an assertive solo with a teasing one, a melodic phrase with a sudden thrust, a straightforwardly on-the-beat vocal with a syncopated sideswipe.
Mr. Guy was a perpetual trickster: stoking a big crescendo topped with a shout, then slyly crooning the next line, switching from rage to leer to amusement, scrabbling wildly at his guitar on the way to a perfectly poised closing phrase. He brought a barely teenage disciple — Quinn Sullivan, 14 — who’s learning Mr. Guy’s speed and volatility, and eventually, with luck, his timing.
A country guitar triumvirate — Mr. Gill, Keith Urban and Albert Lee — bridged blues and bluegrass, with exuberant chicken-pecking and string-bending solos. Mr. Beck’s set, filled with solos that could wail sustained melodies or dispense savage, speedy barbs, spanned jazz-rock (the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “You Know You Know”) and, with Beth Hart’s full-tilt belting, the 1960s blues-rock of “I Ain’t Superstitious.”
At the other end of the spectrum, for sheer succinctness there were the three-note jabs and isolated, vicious chords from the guitarist of the 1960s Memphis soul architects Booker T. and the M.G.s; Cropper rejoined Booker T. Jones (on organ) for their instrumental hits on Friday. For wry, subtle grace, there was the duo on Saturday night of Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ — both playing steel guitars — to interlace plunks and slides in classic country-blues.
The concerts were filmed for release as a DVD, and over two nights the musicians switched configurations. The Allman Brothers Band steamed through Friday’s closing set with a bristling rhythm section; Mr. Clapton joined them to sing “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?,” from the Derek and the Dominos album he made with Duane Allman. On Saturday, the Allmans guitarists Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Gregg Allman appeared as an acoustic trio, summoning the sense of bluesy tragedy that underlies their music; Mr. Allman sang Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.” (The Crossroads Festivals are benefits for the Crossroads Center, an addiction treatment facility in Antigua.)
The festival was a guitar-geek utopia. Video screens showed close-ups of fingers and fretboards more often than faces, and the lineup included guitarists’ guitarists like Sonny Landreth, the scientist of Louisiana slide guitar, and Allan Holdsworth, the jazz-rock innovator whose string-tapping technique would be popularized by Eddie Van Halen.
With so much music, there were inevitably misfires. Mr. Richards and then Robbie Robertson, guests for Mr. Clapton’s closing set on Saturday, chose to feature vocals — not exactly their strong suit — more than their incisive guitar solos. Jazz from Earl Klugh and Kurt Rosenwinkel became background music for conversations on Friday, though Mr. Clapton gamely joined Mr. Rosenwinkel to sing an adventurously reharmonized standard, “If I Should Lose You.” The finale, which had 18 guitarists spanning the stage for a string of solos, didn’t make all of them audible; maybe the recording caught them.
But what came through the two nights was the pleasure of musicians listening to one another. With tradition in their fingers, they were still adding their own hand-played flourishes, full of respect and primed for one-upmanship.