Last weekend, U2 was supposed to treat us to its latest, greatest show on Earth at the TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota. But the great Bono's back gave out, and we all got rain checks. So I headed to another stadium show instead: Crossroads Guitar Festival in suburban Chicago.
It was the best one-day all-star rock event I've witnessed since the Concert for the Rock and Roll of Fame in Cleveland in 1995. That classic may have boasted more superstars, but this one had more rewarding performances and meaningful collaborations. In fact, this 12-hour event -- the third such fund-raiser for the Eric Clapton-founded Crossroads rehab center in Antigua since 2004 -- should be the template for a fabulous one-day rock marathon. (A two-hour version will be shown July 27 in 475 movie theaters.)
Here is what they did right:
The themed lineup was all-encompassing. There were guitar gods (B.B. King, Clapton), legends (Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Hubert Sumlin, Bert Jansch, James Burton), stars (Ron Wood, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, Vince Gill, Steve Winwood, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Los Lobos), discoveries (Pino Daniele, Gary Clark Jr.) and young guns (Derek Trucks, Jonny Lang, Robert Randolph, Doyle Bramhall II).
The organizer showed up early and often. Clapton, wearing shorts, joined opener Sonny Landreth for a song shortly after noon in the scorching sun. He showed up later for Crow's unreleased song, did his own hourlong segment with Winwood, sat in during King's closing set under a full moon, and appeared during the 20-some guitar finale of "Sweet Home Chicago."
The sets were generous. Most of the stars got 45 minutes instead of the usual two- or three-song cameos at these big gigs.
The emcee made sense. Homeboy Bill Murray clearly knew his music, its players and the crowd, and he was hilarious (he dressed up as Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix).
The show was remarkably efficient. Thanks to a lazy-Susan stage, there were very short breaks until King, the final act, showed up late without an excuse.
There were a couple of missteps, including running out of food at the concession stands (and charging $5 for bottled water); having the underwhelming Citizen Cope sit in with Clapton; having Clapton perform "Cocaine" at a benefit for a rehab center, and closing with King, who tends to talk more than he plays (he offered a mere three songs in 45 minutes). (It was fascinating watching his accompanists, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan and host Clapton, eyes glued on him, trying to figure out what was going to happen.)
Highlights: Guy, the master showman, expressing his showy emotionalism following solos by sidemen Lang and Wood; Clapton fired up throughout, especially on "Crossroads" and "Voodoo Chile" (he was way more passionate than at a Clapton concert); ZZ Top doing an all-blues set; Gill's terrific change of pace with a phalanx of country-styled pickers including Burton, Albert Lee, Keb Mo and vocalist Crow; the spirit of Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, filling in for the Allman Brothers (Gregg Allman had a liver transplant four days before Crossroads) and doing a jammy guest-filled set featuring Los Lobos and Warren Haynes; Sumlin, 78, using an oxygen tank, plucking "Sittin' on Top of the World" with rapturous joy; Beck's loud, mesmerizing, effects-enhanced instrumental set including "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Nessun Dorma" and bassist Rhonda Smith's percussive dance on "Rollin' and Tumblin'"; a deeply tanned middle-aged blonde wearing a bikini top made out of tortoise-shell Fender guitar picks carefully sewn together. And she wasn't even part of any of the guitar-booth exhibits.
Indeed, it was a guitar lovers' paradise.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719