Wea/Elektra Entertainment // 2004 // 250 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // February 3rd, 2005
"It's a guitarist's fantasy." -- J.J. Cale
The Crossroads Guitar Festival was held on the first weekend of June, 2004, in Dallas, Texas at the Cotton Bowl. Organized by Eric Clapton, the festival brought together a boatload of guitarists from all corners of the music world in a three-day show benefiting the Crossroads Centre, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center founded by Clapton (a recovering addict himself) on the Caribbean island of Antigua. This DVD from WEA/Elektra features selected highlights of the festival, plus assorted interviews with the participants, all presented in glorious widescreen video with a sparkling DTS audio track. For fans of rock's favorite instrument, this is the equivalent of the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Olive Garden. Dig in.
The Crossroads Festival was more than just a concert; it also hosted an amateur guitar contest (creatively titled "Guitarmageddon"), workshops on guitar playing, and a large venue for buying and selling musical equipment and such. But none of that is here on this two-disc set; this is all about the music. The set list draws from all three days of the show, from both the main stage and the ancillary stages set up in Field Park outside the Cotton Bowl. Although interstitial interviews give the proceedings a bit of narrative flow, there's really no rhyme or reason to the order of presentation here -- it's very mix-and-match. In any event, here's the rundown:
* Eric Clapton: "Cocaine"
If you don't know who Eric Clapton is...well, just don't buy this disc.
* Robert Lockwood, Jr.: "Love In Vain Blues"
Lockwood's stepfather, Robert Johnson, is one of the all-time legends of the blues. Lockwood isn't so bad himself...
* Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughn, and Hubert Sumlin: "Killing Floor"
* Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughn, Hubert Sumlin, and Buddy Guy: "Sweet Home Chicago"
* Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughn, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy: "Rock Me
Three performances from Saturday night's "All Star Blues Jam" on the main stage, highlighted by Buddy Guy's electric stage presence.
* Dan Tyminski and Ron Block: "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,"
"Road to Nash Vegas"
A stunning all-acoustic performance by two members of Union Station, Alison Krause's backup band. Union Station is probably the finest bunch of musicians you've never heard of -- here's proof.
* James Taylor with Jerry Douglas: "Copperline"
A serious, straightforward performance showcases the acoustic stylings of Sweet Baby James.
* James Taylor with Joe Walsh: "Steamroller"
A silly, fun performance showcases Taylor's often-hidden sense of humor and his ability to rip into a good blues song when necessary.
* Vince Gill with Jerry Douglas: "Oklahoma Borderline," "What
The Cowgirls Do"
The vast expanse of country music is represented by Gill, one of its more renowned contemporary practitioners, in two rollicking tunes.
* J.J. Cale with Eric Clapton: "After Midnight," "Call Me The
Cale, better known as a songwriter, proves he can play a mean guitar as well.
* Robert Randolph and the Family Band: "The March"
Pedal steel player Randolph brings his high-energy hybrid of gospel and R&B to the main stage -- hold on to your seats!
* Doyle Bramhall II: "Green Light Girl"
Bramhall certainly has the right pedigree -- his father Doyle Sr. was the drummer for legendary Texas bluesman Lightning Hopkins. For most of the festival, he's relegated to sideman status, but here he gets to show his chops all by himself.
* Carlos Santana with Eric Clapton: "Jingo"
The only thing better than listening to one of Santana's silky-smooth Latin compositions is listening to him explain what it's about or what inspired him to write it. It's roughly the equivalent of listening to a really, really stoned hippie describe what he loves about Gandalf. Fantastic stuff.
* John Mayer: "City Love"
Hey, who let the big, tall freak in?
* Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: "Rag Bihag"
Part Two of the program opens with an Indian musician who doesn't just play the guitar -- he invented a type of guitar to play his style of Indian folk music. Now that's going beyond the call of duty.
* John McLaughlin: "Tones for Elvin Jones"
* Larry Carlton: "Josie"
A pair of jazz guitar greats bring their inimitable styles to the stage. And yes, that latter one is the Steely Dan song -- Carlton played on the original as well.
* David "Honeyboy" Edwards: "Going Down Slow"
Another old timer (and Robert Johnson contemporary) shows us how it's done.
* Eric Clapton: "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day"
Another performance from Clapton's main set; this time, a classic Robert Johnson tune.
* Robert Cray: "Time Makes Two"
Cray's been running underneath the pop culture radar since achieving a brief chart success with Strong Persuader in the mid-'80s, but he's still as peppy a bluesman as ever.
* Jonny Lang: "Give Me Up Again"
The frighteningly young Lang -- he's only 22 -- still manages to sound like a chain-smoking 65-year-old soul singer. Already a Grammy nominee, this performance will do nothing to persuade you he didn't deserve it.
* David Hildago: "Neighborhood"
The guitarist and spiritual leader of Los Lobos gets all rootsy and stuff, esse.
* Steve Vai: "I'm the Hell Outta Here"
The idol of pimply teen metal freaks everywhere plays the guitar at speeds not safe for other humans.
* Eric Johnson: "Desert Rose"
Another technical virtuoso, Johnson was named Best Guitar Player by Guitar Magazine for five straight years -- then they disqualified him from consideration by putting him into their Hall of Fame. If you play guitar, don't watch him -- you'll feel incredibly inferior.
* Joe Walsh: "Funk 49," "Rocky Mountain Way"
Cleveland's native son Walsh, formerly of the James Gang and the Eagles, has developed his daffy-goofy persona to such an extent that it's easy to forget just how flat-out good he is.
* Eric Clapton: "I Shot the Sheriff," "Have You Ever Loved A
Woman (Blues in C)"
The final tidbits from Clapton's performances are the best. His translation of a Bob Marley classic from reggae to blues is skillful. Clapton just playing some straight-out blues is legendary.
* ZZ Top: "La Grange," "Tush"
The Texas power trio closes the show with their two career-making hits from the '70s.
Ever since the tragic death of his young son Conor, Eric Clapton has been retreating further and further into his musical roots -- traditional blues music. In fact, Clapton had just issued an album of Robert Johnson covers, Me and Mr. Johnson, in March, 2004. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that his self-created guitar festival focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on the blues. The guest list is beyond impressive -- it's Hall of Fame material, encompassing blues practitioners both old and young. There's no question that being around so many other great bluesmen pushed the artists to greater heights in their performances, too. For that reason alone, this disc is a valuable addition to any music fan's collection.
But that's not the end of the story. Clapton could have organized a straight blues festival here, but he didn't -- this is a guitar festival. It's as close as you'll ever come to getting a survey of Contemporary Topics In Guitar Playing all in one package. The sounds -- and the audiences -- of John Mayer and ZZ Top couldn't be more different, but here they're welcomed under the same, big, guitar family tent. Surprisingly, the effect isn't as jarring or disconcerting as you'd think. Most contemporary forms of music -- rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass, country -- have a common ancestry, if you go back far enough in time. Festivals like this serve to illustrate this commonality -- as Santana might say, it's all about brotherhood and love and peace, man.
Most of the major artists were interviewed as part of the disc's production; segments of these interviews serve as "bumpers" between performances. They are cleverly integrated into the pseudo-narrative of the presentation, too -- a series of comments about Buddy Guy will lead into a Buddy Guy performance, and so forth. Additional material from these interviews is included as an extra feature on Disc Two, organized by the topic discussed rather than by artist. For the most part, it's good stuff -- these folks aren't very long-winded, yet they still have some interesting things to say.
Picture and sound are exemplary. Although it's not advertised as such, it appears that the show was shot in high definition video. In any event, it's presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect, with vivid, clear colors and few artifacts. The only real significant video issues arise with some daytime performances from the second stage; the artists are filmed against a relatively bright off-white canvas backdrop, which causes a bit of wash-out and bleeding at times. It's not particularly bad, and was essentially unavoidable, so I don't consider it a major detriment.
I'm not one to get into the whole DTS vs. Dolby 5.1 argument, but I will say this -- the DTS track on this disc is far superior to the Dolby track. It's cleaner, brighter, better mixed, and more "full" in sound -- it's quite possibly the best audio track I've ever heard from a concert DVD or CD. But that's not to say the Dolby track is worthless -- it's good, just not as good as the DTS. A quality stereo mix is also included, which sounds terrific on non-surround equipment. This trio of audio tracks is perfect -- and I don't use that term lightly. Reference-quality material.
Beyond the extra interviews mentioned above, the disc is devoid of extra features. Unless you count the multi-angle viewing option, which only is available on Disc One. I don't.
Since this was a three-day festival, but the discs here run only a shade over four hours, you can't help but wonder what was left out. For example, I read that Styx played a blues-heavy set -- now that would be interesting to hear. You just know that Santana played "Oye Como Va" at some point -- did Clapton join him? So many questions...
I have to question the inclusion of John Mayer here as well. I'll be honest: Mayer is not my cup of tea. I think he's a moderately talented Dave Matthews knockoff who relies on his baby face and oh-so-sensitive balladry to appeal to the screaming-teenage-girl audience. His histrionic performance of "City Love," so different in tone and style from the rest of Disc One, was an odd choice to end the first selection of performances. It's a bit of a buzzkill. But I will give him this -- he won me over in the interviews. Mayer's clearly more intelligent than your typical musician, and is refreshingly modest. I guess I can cut the kid some slack...
Finally, one issue comes out in every single review I've seen of this set, and this one will be no different: The show-ending ZZ Top performance is decidedly anticlimactic. Yes, ZZ Top did actually close the festival, but after the All-Star Blues Jam, and the full-band Clapton performances, their power trio attack sounds a bit thin. Let's be honest -- the best place to see ZZ Top is in a small bar somewhere in Houston or Corpus Christi, not in the cavernous Cotton Bowl. Let the Top close Disc One instead of Mayer, and close Disc Two with Clapton, and maybe you've got something.
If you're a fan of the blues, or a fan of some of the artists featured here, Crossroads Guitar Festival is definitely a worthwhile purchase. You'll love the sound and vision, and maybe you'll develop an interest in some of the artists you weren't familiar with before.
On the other hand -- if you hate the guitar, stay far, far away from this disc.
Not at all guilty in the least.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Wea/Elektra Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 250 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Multi-Angle Viewing Option
* Additional Interviews