J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton: The Road to Escondido

[1 January 2007]

By Jason MacNeil

There are certain pairings in music that seem to bring to mind a moment in time when everything for the tandem hit on all cylinders. Often times the tandem do not leave well enough alone and quickly get back into the studio to recreate magic that is no longer there. The results are often depressing, and even diminish that initial magic. But some duos know to quit while way ahead. Eric Clapton and Jean Jacques Cale struck gold together when Clapton performed Cale’s “Cocaine” for his Slowhand masterpiece back in 1977. And, of course, “After Midnight” for his solo self-titled debut years before “Cocaine”. Clapton’s career continued to take off, while Cale’s discography, in terms of quality, resembled one of those early airplanes that got 20 feet off the ground before crashing hard into a chicken coop.
But recently, Cale’s made an upturn of sorts, with his fabulous To Tulsa and Back release in 2004 putting him back on target. Now, both he and Clapton have tempted fate again by reuniting for this album. And while Cale has penned the vast majority of songs here, Clapton seems to have most of the lead vocals. A good example of this blend is the opener “Danger”, which has all the laidback, relaxing nature of a Cale arrangement with Clapton at times giving it a slightly blues-meets-psychedelic flavoring. Clapton’s guitar solo is quite audible, but is more of an accent on the already well-established groove. And like any good tune, it’s in no rush to wrap up, allowing both parties to flesh things out perfectly.
One of the highlights of this album is how it remains rather simple and straightforward despite the talent rounding things out. John Mayer is here, Doyle Bramhill II is here, Derek Trucks is here, Albert Lee is here, the late Billy Preston was here, as was Taj Mahal. “Head’s in Georgia” is a slow, bluesy romp that again has all the hastiness of a Mark Knopfler track. A slightly different, bouncy arrangement comes during the pleasing “Missing Person”, which seems to mix the best of both Clapton’s and Cale’s musical worlds. Neither sounds out of place on this track, while both bring out the best in each other. Perhaps the first tune that sounds a bit forced but still shines is the chugging, boogie-fuelled, and swinging “When the War Is Over”, which sounds like it came from some Louisiana church one sunny Sunday morning, despite the political tone to the tune.
After a tired and rather stale “Sporting Life Blues”, both Clapton and Cale pull themselves up by their bootstraps for a rambling, freewheeling country-tinged hoedown entitled “Dead End Road”, which has them galloping headlong from start to finish. While all musicians here are on the same page, one highlight is the work of fiddler Dennis Caplinger throughout most of the number. But after that, they get back to Cale-like basics with a shuffling, slower “It’s Easy” that could have fallen off the closing moments of To Tulsa and Back; a very loose and toe-tapping kind of number that merely ambles along. But this momentum hits a brick wall hard with the tired, boring, and bland “Hard to Thrill”, which would make even diehard Clapton fans less than thrilled with the effort.
Fortunately, Cale is there yet again to come to the rescue with the fabulous, genre-bending “Anyway the Wind Blows”, which brings to mind a musician like Ramsay Midwood—rough around the edges, but still able to deliver the goods. The lyrics, while sounding as if they were written on the back of a napkin somewhere on the road, are short but to the point. Think of Atkins and Knopfler circa Neck and Neck and you get the idea for this number that hits you square in the gut. Or hips, for that matter. It might be the first recording of what could be dubbed “Old Fogey Rap”, as Cale and Clapton dish out the lyrics rather rapidly. Although most of the material thus far is above average, this track is one of the few songs you’ll find yourself hitting the repeat button for.
The album is a very pretty string of recordings, with Clapton’s best performance being on “Three Little Girls”, one of his own numbers that seems to revisit his “Tears in Heaven” singer-songwriter, folksy vibe. It’s a very sparse but spectacular number that has him on acoustic guitar, yet still quite capable of weaving his intricate magic. This feeling continues later on during the almost hymnal “Who Am I Telling You?”, whuch is highlighted by some great organ work. Just as strong is the reggage-tinged “Don’t Cry Sister” that seems to revisit the blueprint of a song like “I Shot the Sheriff”.
If Clapton and Cale don’t get back together soon for another album, it could be a missed opportunity. But at least they had the good sense to record this one, an album that ranks up there with some of the their best individual work.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jj-cale-and-eric-clapton-the-road-to-escondido/