A series of panoramic shots of the New York city skyline blend into increasingly detailed close-ups of Manhattan streets as instrumental teases led by electric guitar chords set a dramatic tone for the film of Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013. This emotional undercurrent’s immediately reaffirmed as the concert footage begins with an unplugged set led by Slowhand himself.
Looking weathered but sounding more vigorous and nuanced in his vocals than perhaps ever before, Clapton offers an emotive rendition of “Tears in Heaven,” a song arising from the deeply felt outpouring of grief in the wake of Clapton’s son’s death in the Big Apple in 1991. Eric’s long-time guitar accompanist Andy Fairweather Lowe then introduces a tribute to the late bassist Carl Radle, who had played such an integral part in Clapton’s solo career as well as a member of Derek & The Dominoes.
When Vince Gill joins for the sprightly take on “Lay Down Sally,” the leader of band gaily mentions the guitarist’s birthday, thereby elevating the life-affirming motivation behind this event: a means not just of offering an exhibition of great guitar players and their music (and their instruments on display at the famous venue), but as a fundraising effort to subsidize the rehab center Clapton founded in 1998. It may be the shared knowledge of that premise that permeates the overriding humility pervading the star-studded two-day event.
And it’s not just the possibly once in a lifetime occurrence of B.B. King alongside Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan (brother of the late Stevie Ray), EC with The Allman Brothers Band (“Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad”) or the successive duets between Eric and Rolling Stone Keith Richards and the Band’s Robbie Robertson; Crossroads 2013 ends up being a tribute to the most significant influences of our time in the form of the blues (Taj Mahal on “Walkin’ Blues”), contemporary country (Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This” from Vince Gil and Keith Urban), the Beatles (“Don’t let Me Down” from John Mayer and Keith Urban), the Rolling Stones (Gill, Urban and Lee on “Tumbling Dice”), not to mention Eric Clapton’s own extensive song catalog, including Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
Occasional brief interview interludes such as Warren Haynes’ good-natured tribute to BB King act merely as transitions from one act to another, in essence replicating the virtually non-stop parade of acts on the festival stage. Certainly some appearances are more dramatic than others—Jeff Beck cuts almost as striking a figure in his black and white getup as his jazz-rock fusion music—but there’s nevertheless a logical and almost indiscernibly correct pacing to the DVD, so that it has the flow of a suspenseful film that reaches its climax with Eric Clapton’s finale and the ensemble conclusion.
The quiet interlude of Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks on Neil Young’s “The Needle and The Damage Done,” paired with “Midnight Rider,” thus supplies pacing as effective on disc two as the acoustic instrumental work of Earl Klugh and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s smooth jazz traditionalism on disc one. Those segments so accurately mirror their respective moods within the individual discs and the concert overall, each show contained herein works on its own terms and in complementary fashion with its counterpart, making it superior to the far more conventionally film version of 2010 festival,
Given the wealth of material to choose from, director Martyn Atkins deserves more than passing kudos for that exercise in dynamics. It’s one thing to film the performance, it’s quite another to artfully capture the essential nature of the performances as he does, for instance, with the alternating close-ups and cutaways from Sonny Landreth’s slide guitar artistry on “Next of Kindred Spirit.” And while it might be overstating the obvious, the film (and only to a slightly lesser extent, the cd set, simply by dint of its more limited capacity for content), like the concerts themselves, offers musiclovers the opportunity to witness such stellar artists as the up and coming blues prodigy Gary Clark Jr. (who bravely performs solo as one-man band as in his early club days) or the venerable band from east LA Los Lobos, the likes of whom might not otherwise have the grand exposure the famous venue affords. The stellar audio quality throughout, most obvious in its revelation of the detail in the ABB’s improvisations during “Whipping Post,” is just the crowning touch on a splendid package that hopefully will lead to subsequent presentations of comparably elevated standards.