Down to the Crossroads

July 27, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

What constitutes a great rock 'n' roll guitar solo? There are as many answers to that question as there are individual rock fans. Me, I prefer six-string excursions that are short, sharp and to the point -- melodic solos so catchy you can hum them note for note (as with Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin) or furious, unexpected bursts of chaotic noise (a la Lou Reed with the Velvet Underground).

Coming to Toyota Park in Bridgeview tomorrow, Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival is devoted to a different aesthetic: one that is heavily steeped in the blues, the dominant love throughout Clapton's five-decade career, and devoted to flashy displays of technical virtuosity, extended improvisation and collaborative jamming.

That's one of the few things we can say for sure about this fest, which is benefiting the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, founded by Clapton in 1997 to treat people with chemical dependencies. The promoters have released a list of the musicians expected to drop by, but they haven't been provided with set times, and fans are basically in store for a spontaneous back-porch hootenanny -- albeit one peopled with superstars. (Indeed, this is exactly what can be seen on the double DVD documenting the first Crossroads fest, held in June 2004 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.)

We do know that Clapton himself will kick things off at noon, appearing with one of his heroes, Sonny Landreth. And we've been told it's a safe bet he'll pop up often through the rest of the day, along with some of the bigger names, who likely will perform in the evening during the traditional headlining slots. Otherwise, it's anything goes.

With that in mind, here is a look at the announced performers, in the order listed by promoters and with a rating based on the Sun-Times' four-star scale (changed to guitars for this occasion) -- predicting the level of fret-board fury they're likely to deliver.

 

Jeff Beck
Rating:

For my money, Beck always was the most inventive of England's vaunted '60s guitar heroes, creating an incredible array of sounds largely without the benefit of effects, first in the Yardbirds and then during a long solo career that still finds him breaking new ground today. He is certain to be one of the day's highlights.

 

Doyle Bramhall II
Rating:

The Austin-bred second guitarist in Clapton's band, Bramhall is a sympathetic player who's filled in as needed with acts as diverse as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Arc Angels, Wendy and Lisa and Roger Waters. It remains to be seen what he'll do on his own.

 

Eric Clapton
Rating:

I may arouse the wrath of his legions of fans by saying this, but I've always thought Clapton has grown less interesting with each new phase of his career, starting strong with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds; growing increasingly indulgent with Cream and Derek and the Dominoes, and becoming ever more flatulent through his last 30 years of solo offerings. You never know which E.C. will show up -- and it's this inconsistency that keeps him from a four-guitar rave.

 

Robert Cray
Rating:

When it comes to artists bridging the mainstream and pure blues, I always preferred Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Thorogood.

 

Sheryl Crow
Rating:

We can debate the merits of her sunny L.A. pop. But a guitar heroine she ain't.

 

Vince Gill

As with Crow, there's been little evidence of guitar heroics on Gill's country albums. But the man does have deep roots in bluegrass, and he could surprise concertgoers if he draws on those during his performance.

 

Buddy Guy
Rating:

Chicago's hometown hero is, of course, a national treasure, and if he sometimes panders when playing in front of arena crowds, there have also been plenty of times when sharing a stage with Clapton has brought out his very best. Here's hoping for the latter.

 

B.B. King
Rating:

B.B. and his famous ax Lucille also deliver the goods when Clapton is around, as on the 2000 album "Riding With the King," or on the first Crossroads fest DVD, where King, Clapton, Guy and Jimmie Vaughan jammed out on an epic "Rock Me Baby."

 

Alison Krauss and Union Station
Rating:

If Gill doesn't fulfill your bluegrass jones, Krauss and her group will.

 

Sonny Landreth
Rating:

No less an authority than Clapton has said the Louisiana bluesman best known for his slide guitar is "probably the most underestimated musician on the planet." Here's his chance to shine.

 

Albert Lee
Rating:

The Brits call him "Mr. Telecaster," but this frequent Clapton collaborator has always left me cold with his pointlessly flashy displays of speed, moving fast but going nowhere particularly interesting.

 

Los Lobos
Rating:

People may not think of great guitar work when considering these long-running, genre-blending California giants, but their heroics stem from the fact that they play with such amazing sympathy as a group, conquering any style they try.

 

John Mayer
Rating:

While he's certainly better in his bluesman role than he is in his lite-pop guise, Mr. "Your Body Is a Wonderland" is nevertheless an utter lightweight when compared to most of the names on this list.

 

John McLaughlin
Rating:

Though he can lose me in the ether during his more fluttery jazz-fusion excursions, few guitarists have done more to bring the influence of world music -- from Indian ragas to flamenco -- to Western guitar. For that, we applaud him.

 

Willie Nelson
Rating:

He may not be a flamboyant player, but Nelson has wrung an incredible amount of music out of his principal ax, the Martin nylon-string acoustic he named "Trigger." He swears that when that guitar finally wears out, he'll retire from the music biz, and there's something heroic in that.

 

Robert Randolph & the Family Band
Fans say they're combining the traditions of Earth, Wind & Fire and Sly & the Family Stone with the modern jam band ethos. I think they too rarely catch a solid groove, and their pedal steel guitar doesn't do much for me, either.

 

Robbie Robertson
Rating:

Yeah, sure, his guitar solos can be technically and melodically brilliant. But his smug, superior attitude -- best typified in his golden god posing in "The Last Waltz" -- has always been as off-putting as his music's been impressive.

 

Hubert Sumlin
Rating:

The final legendary American bluesman on this bill is a living link to the great Howlin' Wolf, and quite simply one of the most imitated guitarists of all time.

 

The Derek Trucks Band
Rating:

When it comes to the circle of musicians associated with the Allman Brothers, I'll take Warren Haynes, whose substance is as considerable as his style -- something that can't always be said of Mr. Trucks.

 

Jimmie Vaughan
Rating:

He may forever be best known as Stevie Ray's older brother, but I actually prefer a lot of the Fabulous Thunderbird's recordings to the younger Vaughan's.

 

Johnny Winter
Rating:

As famous for surviving years of self-abuse as he is for performing at Woodstock, I've always preferred Winter in his role as a champion of other bluesmen -- producing Muddy Waters, for example -- to churning out his own guitar heroics.

 

Steve Winwood
Rating:

He plays a mean mandolin, but Winwood is best known as a keyboardist. His biggest claim to guitar heroics? Playing beside Clapton in Blind Faith, and it would be interesting if they come together to dust off some of that material.

 

CROSSROADS GUITAR FESTIVAL FACTS

  Toyota Park is located at 71st Street and Harlem Avenue in Bridgeview. Parking lots open at 8 a.m. Saturday; stadium gates open at 9 (allowing access to the Festival Village, which will be displaying some of Clapton's most famous guitars); event host Bill Murray will welcome concertgoers at 11:45, and the music kicks off at noon.

  Prohibited items: aerosol cans; balloons and beach balls; professional camera equipment; outside food or beverages; chains and studded bracelets; coolers or ice chests; fireworks; drugs; large bags and purses; laser pointers; whistles and air horns; umbrellas; video or recording devices; weapons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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