Dallas — "Is it hot up here or what?"
Blues master B.B. King's query had nothing to do with the 90-degree temperature or 55% humidity that turned Cotton Bowl Stadium into a steaming wok for most of Sunday's star-studded finale of Eric Clapton's historic, three-day Crossroads Guitar Festival.
King was humorously but accurately describing the unusual meteorology on stage as he gazed from side to side to see Clapton along with veteran bluesman Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and John Mayer trading licks.
Their freewheeling jam session embodied the appeal of this unprecedented gathering of dozens of the world's top rock, blues, country, jazz and folk guitarists, a benefit for the Crossroads Centre rehab facility in Antigua, West Indies, that Clapton established in 1997 after conquering his own battles with drugs and alcohol.
After the late-afternoon blues summit, Clapton dropped in on Carlos Santana's set and then was joined during his own performance by Jeff Beck, who replaced him in the Yardbirds in the mid-'60s, for a meeting of rock guitar gods on Beck's instrumental version of Stevie Wonder's "Cause We've Ended as Lovers."
Even more than the cumulative power of the individual musicians who participated, it was these rare collaborations that drew some 40,000 fans from around the U.S. and several other countries for what many described as a once in a lifetime event.
"We'll probably never see these guys on the same stage together again," said Mark Griffith, 45, who flew about 1,100 miles from Maumee, Ohio, for the show. "You've got guys who are 21 on the same stage with guys who are 84 years old. He has really bridged a gap."
Clapton's guest list showed little regard for age or style, ranging from erstwhile blues wunderkind Jonny Lang to 89-year-old Honeyboy Edwards, from emotive pop-rock heartthrob Mayer to grizzled singer-songwriter J.J. Cale, from jazz fusion proponent Larry Carlton to boneheaded rocker Joe Walsh.
The Cotton Bowl stage on Sunday proved large enough to accommodate the screeching arena-rock histrionics of Steve Vai and Journey's Neal Schon as well as the gentle folk-rock strumming of James Taylor and the fleet country picking of Vince Gill. World music-laced sounds from John McLaughlin and Indian guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt complemented the intrinsically American music of Louisiana's Sonny Landreth and gospel steel guitarist Robert Randolph.
The only thing missing was a Bonnie Raitt or Susan Tedeschi to prove the guitar isn't the exclusive domain of men. The only thing approaching a sour note was a thunderstorm that rolled in late Sunday, forcing Texas' own ZZ Top to cut its set slightly short and scotching a planned final jam that would have had Clapton and Beck join the trio.
And the only thing more inescapable over the weekend than the wilting heat was the sound of guitar strings being bent, plucked, tapped, strummed, stroked and banged. Respite from the Sun Belt assault was a few steps away inside the air- conditioned climes of two buildings within the 277-acre Fair Park grounds that housed the festival's other key components.
They included an exhibition of 33 donated guitars cherry-picked from among the 88 instruments to be auctioned June 24 by Christie's to generate more money for the Crossroads Centre. (Those 33, among them instruments owned by Clapton, George Harrison, Santana, Pete Townshend and Stevie Ray Vaughan, will be on display Wednesday through Saturday at Christie's Beverly Hills gallery.)
But even indoors, the sounds of guitars were omnipresent. Dozens of musical equipment manufacturers set up booths in what was called Guitar Center Village, to tantalize guitar-heads with a small-scale version of the industry-only NAMM shows.
"People are really excited about this," said Yamaha marketing representative Jerry Andreas, at a booth where Clapton's bassist Nathan East was signing photos. "At the industry shows everybody's so jaded, but here people are like, 'You mean I can get a sticker and it's free?' "
Fans posed for photos in front of what were billed as the world's largest amplifiers, functional 12-foot-tall behemoth versions of Ampeg and Crate models. They could become Claptons or Becks in their own minds trying out Fender, Gibson and other makers' instruments.
Musicians relished the communal aspect of the festival, hugging and shaking hands backstage with old friends.
"It would be great if we could do this every year," said James Burton, the seminal rock guitarist who gained fame in the mid-'50s backing Ricky Nelson before being snapped up by Elvis Presley and later Jerry Lee Lewis, Emmylou Harris and other country and rock figures. (Clapton has said he considers this gathering a one-time venture.)
Still, the showdown of six-string-wielding aces had its intimidating side.