Early in Clapton’s solo career, JJ Cale’s influence was invaluable. Not only because two of Cale’s songs, “After Midnight” — which he covered on his self-titled solo debut, four years after Cale first released a demo of the song — and “Cocaine” from 1977’s Slowhand are among Clapton’s most notable tracks, but also because Cale’s laid-back Americana minimalism seemed to greatly impact Clapton’s musical path. In July of 2014, in USA Today, Clapton spoke of Cale and the “very profound musical and philosophical effect he had on my life, through his music and the way he conducted himself as a singer, musician and player. I think he had a similar effect on the whole of the music scene”.
On The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale, Clapton and friends — Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler, Derek Trucks, former Cale bandmate Don White, to name a few — contribute renditions honoring the late Oklahoma-born musician , who died in 2013 at the age of 74. While, mostly, it feels like a faithful jam session that plays it safe — valuing memory more than exploration — that’s ok. This record is what it is: a major step in immortalizing a reclusive legend who wasn’t a household name, yet whose work ended up in the canon. JJ Cale might not have liked the spotlight, but his songs certainly belong there.
Clapton kicks off the album with a dead-on emulation of the freewheeling, smooth R&B boogie that was Cale’s signature on “Call Me The Breeze”. One of the best tracks is the Don White-led “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)”, a Bakersfield country-leaning throwback that captures the essence of Cale, but wiggles away just enough to add some fresh flair. Willie Nelson’s shaky vocals and Derek Trucks adding his signature slide on “Starbound” brings the grit, while Clapton and John Mayer add a traditional blues touch to “Don’t Wait”. Bit by bit, song by song, you start to wonder how much they’re trying to sound like Cale — possibly out of pure respect or fear of over-performing a guy known for his ice-cool subtly. It’s safe, which only gets The Breeze so far, but, this record will undoubtedly get a lot of people to revisit, or discover JJ Cale, which is a win in itself.
As I currently write this sentence, The Breeze is Number Two on the Billboard 200. Just that alone is a massive success, but, in that USA Today interview, Clapton brings up something that could be much more important — if done with care — to continue celebrating the brilliance of JJ Cale. When asked about the songs Cale left behind, Clapton said, “There is a lot of stuff, a lot of demos. But believe me, they are un-coverable. I’m hoping, bit-by-bit, the stuff will come out in its original form. That’s the way it sounds best.”