Crossroads Guitar Festival Review: McGuinn, Stills, Mayer & More, But Clapton is Mostly MIA

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Gary Clark Jr., Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan at the 2023 Crossroads Festival (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold, used with permission)

The most telling thing about the first night of Eric Clapton’s two-night 2023 Crossroads Guitar Festival in Los Angeles,on September 23 is that, even though the musical marathon ran more than eight hours, ending past midnight, hardly anyone left early.

That says a lot about the quality of the entertainment at this year’s festival, which featured a hand-picked (by Clapton) lineup of some of the finest guitar players of the rock era, from Roger McGuinn, John McLaughlin and Stephen Stills to Eric Gales, Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer.

The scheduled lineup also included Buddy Guy, a no-show due to illness, and Robbie Robertson, who died six weeks before the show.

Related: Clapton opened his recent tour with a tribute to Robbie Robertson

The Crossroads Festival benefits the Crossroads Centre, a rehab facility in Antigua that helped Clapton get sober 35 years ago. He put together the first festival in 1999 in Madison Square Garden in New York and five years later adopted the Crossroads name for a second show, in Dallas. Subsequent guitar fests have been held in 2007 and 2010 (outside Chicago), 2013 (New York) and 2019 (Dallas).

Roger McGuinn (l.) and Eric Clapton perform the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” at the 2023 Crossroads Festival (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold, used with permission)

It’s hard to pick highlights from the opening show; there were simply too many. McGuinn leading Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers on the Byrds’ classic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was certainly one. After a less-inspired version of “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” the 81-year-old McGuinn outdid himself with an electrifying, deliciously psychedelic version of “Eight Miles High,” on which he guitar-dueled with Clapton, wielding his signature Rickenbacker 12-string. Clapton’s improvised solo near the end was reminiscent of the late-period Byrds with Clarence White, who would often stretch the song out to 20 minutes or more.

Another high point was Stills joining Clapton and the Wallflowers on Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Questions.”

Watch Stills perform “Love the One You’re With” on the second night

And then there was Albert Lee, the great British blues guitarist, who stunned the audience with his trademark fingerstyle technique on the catchy “Runaway Train,” which he wrote, and covers of Carl Perkins’ “Restless” and Johnny Burnette’s “Tear It Up.” Lee has played with a host of famous musicians, and from 1978 to 1983 toured with Clapton (he can be prominently heard singing and playing on Clapton’s 1980 live album, Just One Night).

Lee was later joined onstage by Peter Asher, who turned back the clock on a duet of “World Without Love,” the Paul McCartney-penned song that was the first big hit, in February 1964, for Peter and Gordon, the British Invasion pop duo Asher sang and played in with the late Gordon Waller. (Asher later managed and produced Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, among other artists.) The pair closed with a cover of Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone.”

Eric Gales, Joe Bonamassa and John McLaughlin at the 2023 Crossroads Festival (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold, used with permission)

Brilliant blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa also commanded the stage for five songs, his piercing leads echoing through the vast 20,000-capacity Crypto Arena (originally the Staples Center) on such songs as the ferocious “Evil Mama” and the soulful ballad “The Heart That Never Waits.” He then brought out McLaughlin, remarking to the crowd that it never occurred to a “six-year-old Joe Bonamassa that 40 years later, after having his mind blown by a record called Bitches Brew and Friday Night in San Francisco, I would ever be able to say the words, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome John McLaughlin.’” The two then teamed on a soulful rendition of “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” a mournful tune written by Stevie Wonder for his wife, Syreeta, but given to Jeff Beck as compensation for releasing “Superstition” first. (Wonder had originally promised to give the song to Beck for his new supergroup, Beck, Bogert and Appice.)

Just as impressive were performances by three Black blues guitarists: Eric Gales, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Gary Clark Jr.

Gales wowed with a pair of instrumentals, including a jazzy rendition of Clapton’s “Layla,” and his own uptempo “Put It Back,” but soared to peak power when he brought out Samantha Fish to join him on a blistering rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”

Ingram then came out and joined Gales on his own “Long Distance Woman” and a positively out-of-this-world rendition of Jeff Beck’s “Going Down,” on which he alternated with a returning Fish on lead vocals.

And Clark shone brightest when he teamed with Jimmie Vaughan on “Texas Flood,” followed by Clapton coming out and joining the pair on two more songs, the 1960 classic “Early One Morning,” cowritten by Big Joe Turner, and the 1936 Robert Johnson blues standard “Sweet Home Chicago.”

One of the biggest crowd-pleasing moments was John Mayer’s four-song mini-set with his blues trio, which also consists of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. The band, which only played together on one other occasion over the last six years, was in high gear on “Vultures,” “Gravity” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.” But the high point of their performance was the closing number, a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “They Love Each Other” – a song Mayer is quite familiar with thanks to his recent tour with the Dead and Company on their last road show.

Other shining moments during the show were Taj Mahal singing “Catfish Blues” and the blues standard “Nobody’s Business But My Own”; Sheryl Crow singing her thoughtful ballad “Redemption Day,” which was covered by Johnny Cash shortly before the country legend’s death; and the entire 30-minute set by War on Drugs, whose front man, Adam Granduciel, once admitted to being obsessed with Bob Dylan.

The only disappointment: there was very little Clapton. He came out at the start of the show at 4 p.m. to join emcee Bill Murray on a few lines of “I’m So Glad,” a Delta blues song originally recorded in 1931 by Skip James and later covered by Cream, and then reappeared a short while later to join bluegrass revivalists the Del McCoury Band on the 1972 country classic “Always on My Mind” and his own “Fall Like Rain.”

But other than that, his appearances were sporadic, and expectations for a grand finale with a handful of Clapton classics were dashed when show closer ZZ Top left the stage after a half-hour performance that ended shortly after midnight and the houselights came on.

Apparently old Slowhand made up for his absence the next night, but that’s another review…

Thomas K. Arnold

2 Comments so far

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  1. Batchman
    #1 Batchman 27 September, 2023, 15:50

    “Questions” was not Crosby Stills & Nash, but Buffalo Springfield. However, it did become part of Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Carry On.”

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    • Thomas K. Arnold
      Thomas K. Arnold 29 September, 2023, 00:41

      You are 100% correct. I was still in a state of euphoria over seeing McGuinn and Clapton on “Eight Miles High.”

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