When Appellate Judge Dave Ryan plays his two guitars, they don't gently weep—they scream in tortured agony. Maybe he could use some lessons from the performers featured at this three-day guitar orgy.
"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.
Facts of the Case
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"
• Robert Lockwood, Jr.: "Love In Vain Blues"
• 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 Baby"
• Dan Tyminski and Ron Block: "I Am a Man of Constant
Sorrow," "Road to Nash Vegas"
• James Taylor with Jerry Douglas: "Copperline"
• James Taylor with Joe Walsh: "Steamroller"
• Vince Gill with Jerry Douglas: "Oklahoma Borderline,"
"What The Cowgirls Do"
• J.J. Cale with Eric Clapton: "After Midnight,"
"Call Me The Breeze"
• Robert Randolph and the Family Band: "The March"
• Doyle Bramhall II: "Green Light Girl"
• Carlos Santana with Eric Clapton: "Jingo"
• John Mayer: "City Love"
• Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: "Rag Bihag"
• John McLaughlin: "Tones for Elvin Jones"
• Larry Carlton: "Josie"
• David "Honeyboy" Edwards: "Going Down
• Eric Clapton: "If I Had Possession Over Judgement
• Robert Cray: "Time Makes Two"
• Jonny Lang: "Give Me Up Again"
• David Hildago: "Neighborhood"
• Steve Vai: "I'm the Hell Outta Here"
• Eric Johnson: "Desert Rose"
• Joe Walsh: "Funk 49," "Rocky Mountain
• Eric Clapton: "I Shot the Sheriff," "Have You
Ever Loved A Woman (Blues in C)"
• ZZ Top: "La Grange," "Tush"
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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