I caught Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival on PBS this evening, and subsequently ordered the DVD from Amazon. If you like electric guitar, you might want to give it a try. Herewith some notes, and a story about a conversation I once had with J.J. Cale.
The Festival line-up included Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, Vince Gill (Huh? But he was great), Robert Cray, Joe Walsh, James Taylor, and (dig the initials) B.B. King, J.J. Cale, and ZZ Top. Which is impressive, although I felt the absence of Mr. Young, Mr. Beck, and Ms Raitt. Anyhow, it was almost all very good, although Eric didn’t really mesh with Santana’s band, and “rising star” John Mayer was kind of lame.
Although I like most music, the electric guitar is by a wide margin the instrument closest to my heart. Yes, that started in the Sixties, but what of it? The first time I heard that sound (Jimmy Page in my case) I knew; after that it wouldn’t have mattered whether it was fashionable or not.
I’m old enough that I remember having to strive mightily with my elders and betters, who informed me in superior tones that the electric guitar was a primitive instrument useful only for playing primitive music. So, I admit, when I sit there and watch the these virtuosi pouring their souls over the front of the stage, I’m feeling a certain teenage I-told-you-so vibe.
Highlights · A few of the numbers stand out in my mind. Weirdly, James Taylor and Joe Walsh laughing their way through Steamroller; but still with a fine musical edge.
Then there was the finale from ZZ Top. You have to be in awe, even though their shtick is, and has been for decades, at some level ridiculous. But they’ve been true to their, uh, muse and played a lot of very good music, and their look gets better as they get older. I don’t know whether the cross-stage wind was natural or artificial, but it pulled the beards into a parallel slant while they paced sideways in lockstep, a sort of back-beat pavane, a choreography that enriches the world even while it makes you snicker. Did I say I was a fan?
For me the highlight was Eric and J.J. Cale doing After Midnight; but first, forgive me a war-story. In my misspent youth I earned my rent for a couple of years stage-managing, and J.J. was one of the acts we put on. Unlike every act in the universe, after they’d got the amps and mikes wired up, the roadies just dumped the guitars and drums, still in their cases, in their spots on the stage, and when showtime came, the audience in their seats, the band walked on stage with the lights low, unpacked, plugged in, tuned up, and drifted into the first song as the lights drifted up. J.J. has his own quiet magic, and when the show was over, the crowd predictably demanded an encore. After the clapping and stomping had gone on for a while, but the band hadn’t appeared, I ran backstage and found everyone but J.J. standing in the wings. I said “What’s up?” and someone said “J.J. is downstairs.” So I ran downstairs and there was J.J., all alone, cleaning his guitar in the thunder of the feet pounding overhead. I said “Are you going to play another tune?” and he said “D’ya think we oughta?” and I said “It’d make them happy” and he said “OK” and went upstairs and did.
Anyhow, the music world in general and Eric Clapton in particular owe J.J. quite a debt for those songs. (For the serious fan, the best-ever version of After Midnight is probably found on Eric’s Just One Night album, recorded live in Japan.) Partly because of that debt, it was awfully moving when Eric played rhythm behind J.J. on After Midnight. J.J. took the first solo, and it was typically controlled and elegant; then Eric played a short break, controlled, elegant, and eight-dimensional. Beautiful.