On the flight to JJ Cale’s funeral in late July 2013, Eric Clapton was already working out a tribute. When the time was right, Clapton approached Cale’s widow (and constant bandmate) Christine Lakeland to ask if it would be alright with her if he recorded a tribute album. The answer was a resounding “yes.” Shortly after the funeral, a group of Cale’s friends and fellow musicians gathered at McCabe’s, a local open-mic watering hole. As Clapton heard Don White — Cale’s “boss” until Cale branched off to make his own recordings — performing Cale’s “Sensitive Kind,” the idea of including other musicians whose lives and careers were influenced and inspired by the man took root. And thus, The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale was born.
JJ Cale might not be familiar to many folks, but his songs certainly are. A pioneer of the Tulsa Sound, Cale (1938 -2013) was an engineer, producer, guitarist, vocalist, and brilliant songwriter. He’s the genius behind “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” both made quite famous by Clapton’s interpretations of them, as well as the song that inspired the title of this album, “Call Me the Breeze” — covered most notably by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a song that has since become a regular on John Mayer’s concert setlist.
And though Cale’s name wasn’t entirely his own, his musical stylings definitely were. Born John Weldon Cale, he was renamed by a local bar owner to distinguish himself from The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, but friends like Clapton called (and still call) the shy, modest, and reclusive genius “John.”
Naturally, “Call Me the Breeze” kicks off the album (which is available via HDtracks as a 96/24 FLAC download). Intentionally, it’s the only song that most people will recognize, as Clapton deliberately used less familiar songs from Cale’s repertoire for this tribute. Appropriately, Cale’s voice and trademark use of a drum machine kicks off the song (he and Roger Linn were early pioneers of that technology). Another trademark of Cale’s is the layering of sounds. What seems like an incredibly complex guitar track is really made up of multiple tracks that expertly weave together. Clapton doesn’t try to mimic Cale’s voice, but the song is so entrenched in the Tulsa vibe created and perfected by Cale that he haunts this track. Clapton has said that he invited a bunch of Cale’s former bandmembers and friends to play on the album — and, at times, there were as many as five drummers on certain songs. Clapton said that Cale displayed little diplomacy in his mixes as an engineer – if a track didn’t work, it was out. On this cut, lots of extra tracks are clearly present in an exuberant, celebratory way.
Tom Petty is featured on three tracks. “Rock and Roll Records” has a typical Petty guitar sound and his voice has a laid-back, whispery quality, doubled with Clapton’s. “I Got the Same Old Blues” has more of Clapton’s guitar influence, as well as Clapton harmonizing on Petty’s voice. The layering of drums is evident here, with a hi-hat track on top of a snare drum that could not have been played by a single drummer. “The Old Man and Me” is wonderfully atmospheric, with a lazy beat and, again, doubled vocals (without Clapton this time) and rich with pedal-steel guitar lines from Greg Leisz.
Mark Knopfler’s vocals and guitar are featured on two tracks. “Someday” could easily be mistaken for a Dire Straits recording – there is no doubt who’s playing that lead guitar. This arrangement is highly reminiscent of “Wanderlust,” a track from Knopfler’s 2000 solo album Sailing to Philadelphia. Just when you think the song is over, a fabulous drum sound is introduced just for the fadeout. “Train to Nowhere” also features Don White. The laid-back feel of the chorus is infectious – check out how the vocals occasionally hit the word “train” on different beats. Casual, to say the least.
Don White sings lead vocals on two tracks as well. Clapton met him for the first time at Cale’s funeral, and when he was invited out for the sessions, White has said that he would have been happy just playing rhythm guitar on a few tracks, as he didn’t expect to sing any leads. As noted earlier, “Sensitive Kind” is the track that Clapton heard him perform right after Cale’s funeral. White’s voice has the same understated vibe that Cale perfected. However, the one flaw I’ve discovered with this entire recording is in the fade of the last notes. While the guitar and organ are left to ring out naturally, the resonation of the snare drum abruptly cuts out instead of being faded out manually. This drives the old engineer in me crazy! Making up for that, this song has some of the best guitar solos on the album. “I’ll Be There” is a fabulous, upbeat toe-tapper that could be covered by any country singer for an instant Top 10 hit. This song is another example of the layering of instruments – so many guitar, dobro, and keyboard tracks to explore with each listen. Ironically, after the album was recorded, Clapton found out that JJ Cale didn’t write this one. Cale covered it on his 1974 album Okie, but it was actually written by Rusty Gabbard and Ray Price.
John Mayer adds a fresh take to “Lies.” This track is quite reminiscent of the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s hit 1976 single “So Into You” — which is interesting, because they’re another band who covered “Call Me the Breeze.” Mayer’s voice is so refreshing on “Magnolia,” a gorgeous, simple yet lush ballad. “Magnolia” is just pure perfection. “Don’t Wait” has a raunchy, upbeat groove that sounds just as current today as it did decades ago. Hey, a good rocking track is good rocking track. This one was co-written with Cale’s wife, Christine Lakeland.
Willie Nelson joins in with guitars and vocals on two tracks. “Songbird” has Nelson’s vocals washed in reverb, and his voice is perfect on this storyteller’s ballad. But the real star of his appearance is on “Starbound,” with his voice raw and full of emotion.There’s just a faint echo of a vocal in the right channel – a ghost talking about our brief time on this earth.
Clapton only takes on a few lead vocals by himself. “Cajun Moon” has his voice doubled again, Cale-style. When deciding if the songs should sound like Cale, E.C. said that would be the safest approach, but he felt it was most respectful to do the songs as Cale would, not Clapton’s way. This is quite evident on “Since You Said Goodbye.” The hypnotic groove feels more restrained than Clapton would have done on his own. Cale’s trademark drum machine comes back with the album’s final track, “Crying Eyes,” which, besides E.C., also features Lakeland along with slide guitar from young maestro Derek Trucks.
It’s rare that an album has such a consistent feel that keeps the listener just rolling along for the ride. JJ Cale always displayed a relaxed ease and understated grace with his vocals, guitar playing, and songwriting. This collection — most definitely HRAC Approved, and one of the best overall releases of 2014 — just begs to be played while sipping a beer on a porch overlooking a lazy river. The Breeze is a timeless and a fitting tribute to an unsung hero of popular music.