Eric Clapton and JJ Cale: The Backstory
When it comes to blues rock guitar players, Eric Clapton might be remembered as the greatest of them all. The "greatest guitar player" subject has been hotly debated for decades at record stores, guitar shops, and watering holes across the world, but it's hard to argue that any single player has been as influential as E.C. was during the '60s as he directly paved the way for legends like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and countless others who followed the trail that he blazed first.
One of the amazing things about Clapton's career is that once he reached a level of international superstar status in the revolutionary psychedelic hard rock group, CREAM, he decided to shift gears and make rock more suited to smokey barrooms than arenas, embracing funky R&B, rootsy Americana, and reggae. In 1970, Clapton discovered a demo of "After Midnight" by an unknown Oklahoma singer-songwriter named JJ Cale and included the song on his self-titled solo debut album - over a year before Cale was able to record his own debut album because he was "dirt poor" at the time and struggling to make a living as a musician.
Once "After Midnight" became a hit song, JJ Cale went on to record 15 solo albums. Several of those, especially Naturally and Troubadour, are considered to be all-time classics with sensational songwriting and production incorporating a wide variety of musical styles such as rock, blues, jazz, country, cajun, and early electronic. Cale and Clapton went on to make an album together in 2006 called The Road to Escondido.
JJ Cale passed away in 2013 at the age of 74.
The Breeze (An Appreciation of JJ Cale) In Review
That brings us to present day, as Clapton recruited an impressive list of guest stars for The Breeze (An Appreciation of JJ Cale) including Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, and Willie Nelson alongside Oklahoma native Don White, and a younger generation of guitar gunslingers, John Mayer and Derek Trucks. As a big fan of both Clapton and Cale, I must say that I found this album to be a disappointment. Most of the album is good, but it lacks the intimacy I was looking for.
The album gets off to a rough start, as the first 10 seconds of audio are ripped directly from Cale's original recording of "Call Me The Breeze," which could be seen as less of an appreciation than an appropriation. It's this lack of creativity that ultimately prevents this record from being something truly special. At times, Clapton sounds like a YouTube amateur, tastelessly noodling over a good song without doing anything new or interesting.
The saving grace of the album is the collaborations. The Tom Petty tracks, "Rock and Roll Records," "I Got The Same Old Blues," and "The Old Man and Me," are all excellent. Willie Nelson's contributions sound fantastic, and offer an interesting and different take on Cale's material. John Mayer turns in excellent guitar and vocal performances on "Lies" and "Magnolia." The closing track on the album, "Crying Eyes," features Derek Trucks and Cale's widow and longtime music collaborator, Christine Lakeland.
For fans of JJ Cale who are familiar with his entire catalog already, this album features three songs written by Cale that have never before been released: "Someday," "Songbird," and "Train to Nowhere." On the basic album, these three songs feature Mark Knopfler, Willie Nelson, and Don White, respectively. On the box set, Cale's original recordings of each song are featured on the 2nd disc, including the demos of these three songs as well as the original 1966 demo of "After Midnight" originally released on Liberty Records.
"Someday" sounds like it could have come straight off a Cale album, which is fitting since Knopfler is probably the artist who most closely resembles Cale's guitar and vocal sounds. "Songbird" is just the opposite, as Willie Nelson's unique vocal style really transforms the song to sound like his own. "Train To Nowhere" is a smart blues shuffle that defies the conventional 12-bar blues progression, but it's so slow and stiff that it doesn't achieve its potential as a danceable honky-tonk rocker. JJ Cale was the master at getting a laid back vibe with a killer groove - even when he'd use a drum machine. By comparison, Clapton's rhythm section often sounds lame and lifeless on this record.
Clocking in at 16 songs and 51 minutes, it's easy to say the album could have been much better if a few of the tracks were left on the cutting room floor. The aforementioned "Call Me The Breeze" is a travesty, and "Train to Nowhere" just doesn't work. Some of Cale's best records were less than 33 minutes (Naturally was 32, Really was 32, Okie was 29), and Clapton would have been served well to trim some of the weaker cuts here.
As a whole, The Breeze is not a great album, but it's also not a bad album. It's a worthwhile listen for fans of JJ Cale, Eric Clapton, and the guest stars who turn in some fine tribute performances. It will also hopefully bring more attention to the very special music that Cale made during his lifetime.
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