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.
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
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.
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.
When it comes to artists bridging the mainstream and pure blues, I always
preferred Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Thorogood.
We can debate the merits of her sunny L.A. pop. But a guitar heroine she
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.
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. 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
If Gill doesn't fulfill your bluegrass jones, Krauss and her group will.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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;