Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and John Mayer play it too safe in this tribute to the late Oklahoma guitarist and songwriter
In many ways, the lives and music of Eric Clapton and JJ Cale form a perfect study in contrasts. Eric Clapton has been famous for all of his adult life, and before he was even properly out of adolescence, enthusiastic fans began to scribble “Clapton is God” all over the London subway. It must have been a hell of a thing to try and live up to. JJ Cale, on the other hand, for all of his critical and financial successes, spent most of his life and career flying under the public’s radar. He never—as he said once in an interview—had any trouble doing normal things like going into a restaurant, ordering a sandwich and eating it in peace without being recognized or hassled by fans.
Eric Clapton has never had the opportunity to enjoy that type of anonymity. For the first decade or so of his career, he embraced the bluster and rode the rock and roll myth for all it was worth as he enjoyed all of the benefits of adulation and fame. Clapton paid a heavy price for all of this attention he gained as a member of Cream and Derek & The Dominos before establishing a solo career. In the wake of these early successes, he spent years fighting addictions to heroin and alcohol while still maintaining a full touring and recording schedule. JJ Cale’s approach to making music was far more modest and far less personally damaging. He recorded 14 studio albums over his 40-year career, but his reputation was established by his 1972 debut, Naturally, which featured his best-loved songs, including “After Midnight,” “Call Me The Breeze” and “Crazy Mama.” Naturally—like many of Cale’s albums—was a critical hit when it was released, but sales were modest and didn’t reflect the high regard other musicians held for his work. Cale often joked that he owed his financial success to Eric Clapton, who regularly recorded versions of his songs, with his high-octane epic takes of “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” being the most famous. In 2008, the pair actually came together in the studio to collaborate on a rather listless and unfocused album, The Road To Escondido, that surprisingly went on to win the best blues Grammy that year.
It’s easy to hear why Eric Clapton would be drawn to JJ Cale’s music. Cale’s guitar style has always been simple and guided by feeling, whereas Clapton spent the first half of his career playing as loud and fast as possible. He often sounded as if he was making up for the lack of soul and emotion by overwhelming his listeners with an abundance of notes that often did little more than mask the absence of real feeling in the music. In recent years, Clapton has dialed it down quite a lot and has learned to play with an economy that approaches Cale’s intuitive simplicity, but the emotional range that Cale’s guitar exudes remains almost completely absent in Clapton’s work. The raw emotions that Clapton’s substance abuse allowed him to access in songs like “Layla” and “Rambling On My Mind” have been harder to hear in his work since he achieved sobriety. The Eric Clapton who emerged from rehab may have been a much happier and well-balanced individual, and for that anybody with a kind heart should be happy. Still, when you consider Clapton’s journey from a strictly musical perspective, it’s difficult to remember the last time he wrote, sang or played anything remotely exciting or engaging. To my ears, almost everything he’s turned his hands to from the mid-’70s on has never risen beyond the level of tastefully dull and technically proficient. Clapton can still play all the notes, but for a guy who plays the blues, the music he shares often ends up sounding soulless and hollow, and without direction or purpose.
That’s where JJ Cale comes in. The Oklahoma guitarist’s music was defined by feeling and guided by a soulfulness that can’t be taught, and this obviously appealed to Clapton who intuitively heard what his own music was lacking. JJ Cale couldn’t play nearly as fast as Clapton can, but to my ears, he often communicated more true emotion in a single note than his British counterpart conveyed in an entire song, proving that sometimes less is truly more.
With all of my misgivings about Eric Clapton, my expectations for Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale were quite low. While he was alive, Clapton always championed Cale’s work, yet his covers of “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” were both very overblown and trample over all of the subtleties of the original versions. I needn’t have worried; for the most part, all of the recordings on Breeze are models of economy and taste and for once, Clapton has let Cale’s soulful vibe and understated rhythms dictate where the songs go. Clapton and the other artists who gathered for this project—most notably John Mayer, Willie Nelson and Mark Knopfler—take their time with their solos and scrupulously resist any temptation to showboat or overplay. The resulting performances are respectful and understated, but unfortunately the whole album never really rises above “pleasant” with songs that never really reach a deep or soulful level.
On the whole, the effect that The Breeze creates is a little too polite and reverential for my tastes. It’s one thing to blend Cale’s own spoken introduction to “Call Me The Breeze” as Clapton does at the beginning of the album; it’s another thing entirely to completely replicate Cale’s original arrangements as he and John Mayer do on “Lies,” where their vocals are virtually indistinguishable from the original. Mayer’s version of “Magnolia” starts out well as he plays with the original tempo, but his guitar and vocal treatment of the song devolve quickly into tribute-band territory with nothing interesting added. Mayer is a great guitarist with a subtle tonal range, so it’s frustrating to consider what he could have done with the song. Mark Knopfler contributes similar note-perfect versions of “Someday” and “Train To Nowhere” that shimmer warmly on the surface, but add nothing to our appreciation of either Cale’s or Knopfler’s artistry. A great tribute album is about the interaction between the music of the original player and the artist who is interpreting it, and that rarely happens on The Breeze. Only Willie Nelson, who didn’t even attempt to make Trigger, his legendary battered-in guitar, follow JJ Cale’s melodies, managed to express his laid-back vibe and capture his flowing grooves on “Starbound” and “Songbird.”
Breeze: An Appreciation Of JJ Cale isn’t a perfect record by any means, but if these versions of his best-loved songs from Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Willie Nelson and Mark Knopfler encourage people to listen to Cale’s originals, the whole effort will have been worthwhile.