JJ Cale Made Beautiful Music with His Gadget-Filled $50 Harmony Guitar
We all have our baptismal concerts, and for me the performances by both Rick Danko and JJ Cale deepened my reverence for blues and other forms of American roots music
In the summer of 1979, legend Waylon Jennings headlined a one-day music festival that took place way out in nowhere. The closest city was more than an hour away, and no major highways ran close to the Mad River Mountain Ski Resort in rural Ohio. Thousands of people appeared, however, and as far as ticket sales were concerned, the promoters probably considered the show a success.
Waylon was one of the outlaws who helped country music pull in a broader audience, and he had enough clout to assemble a diverse and interesting lineup for this event. Rick Danko, Butterfield Blues Band and JJ Cale all shared common ground with Waylon Jennings, yet they were less-than-obvious choices to appear on the same bill as the country legend. For me, the concert was a must because I assumed it might be my only chance to see Waylon’s supporting acts. Paul Butterfield had more or less disappeared after the Butterfield Blues Band folded, I didn’t even know Danko was pursuing a solo career, and as for JJ Cale, I figured he’d rather be hiding out somewhere in the deep South than performing in front of a large crowd. An interview or two with him helped give me that impression—that and his album covers; he had yet to appear on the front of one, and when he showed up on the back cover he was hidden behind a pair of sunglasses.
In many ways the concert turned out to be a disaster. A regional act, McGuffey Lane, went over well. Then it rained hard enough for a field to turn into a mud pit. That said, when Rick Danko walked out bearing an Ovation guitar and a bottle of wine and made some upbeat remarks about the change in the weather, the crowd cheered.
Things quickly went downhill, however. Perhaps Danko would have fared better if the Butterfield Blues Band had joined him. That was the plan, but apparently things got out of control backstage—this even though his set probably began about four in the afternoon. Other things being equal, Danko’s boyish, playful, good-old-boy persona might have gone over okay with the crowd, but the way he held notes for an unnaturally long time and made strange faces created enemies. Placing his hands on his neck and then twisting it at the end of “Brainwash” didn’t help matters.
Soon, audience members were booing, and then they were throwing empty gallon beer jugs. After making it through seven or eight songs Danko threw his guitar and yelled out, “Throw in the tape!” While yelling the lyrics to “Stage Fright” into a microphone, Danko used his free hand to try to catch the gallon jugs that were being thrown in his direction. By the end of the song the stage was full of them.
The bad vibes did not end there. There was a rumbling in the crowd when JJ Cale’s band strolled out onstage, yet the musicians seemed oblivious to the bad vibes. “You better be good,” someone yelled from close to the stage. What added to the tension was the amount of time band members spent plugging in cords and twisting knobs. It seemed to go on forever.
Without any introduction, the band eventually broke into a version of “After Midnight” that for me was a revelation. On record Cale’s songs sounded stripped down, but here the sound was much fuller, as fresh and natural as a waterfall and as light as the breeze.
The band was arranged in a semi-circle, the musicians facing each other instead of the crowd. Christine Lakewood strummed guitar, and there was at least one other musician adding layers to the richly textured sound. Meanwhile Cale, whose non-rock star wardrobe included a gas station attendant shirt, made beautiful music with his gadget-filled $50 Harmony guitar. The second song was “Crazy Mama,” and by the time Cale had finished his crybaby guitar solo I went from being a fan to a fanatic.
Although Cale wasn’t famous, almost every song he played that day was well-known. However, he didn’t tell the audience that he wrote “After Midnight” or “They Call Me the Breeze” or “Cocaine”. In fact, he didn’t talk at all, and it’s entirely possible that much of the crowd thought it was witnessing a cover band. Certainly it seemed that way: throughout the set applause was mild, and it was clear that JJ wasn’t winning over the hearts of the cantankerous crowd. (It’s worth noting that even though he was the headliner, Waylon had to tell the crowd to stop throwing jugs on the stage.)
That the audience seemed indifferent wouldn’t have bothered Cale one bit, I suspect—in fact, he might have preferred it, as he had no interest in becoming a star. That afternoon his band played like it was sitting on a porch out in the country somewhere, and five or ten thousand people just happened to be there. If the vibe had been absolutely perfect that day, I’m not sure Cale would have acted differently. Like the poor fool who tried to ruffle Dylan’s feathers at the Grammy’s, the crowd at Mad River Mountain Ski Resort would have to work harder than that to get a reaction from him.
We all have our baptismal concerts, and for me the performances by both Rick Danko and JJ Cale deepened my reverence for blues and other forms of American roots music. Afterwards, I went out of my way to buy albums by JJ Cale, The Band, Ry Cooder, the missing-in-action Paul Butterfield… and every blues artists I could find. After seeing JJ live, listening to his albums was doubly intriguing. In the studio he was given to endless tweaking, yet the finished product could sound like a demo tape (and sometimes was, apparently). Play a JJ Cale song enough times, though, and it’ll grow on you. The simple piano riff that ushers in “After Midnight” moves me the same way as the intro to “Getting in Tune” by the Who (and if anybody knew anything about getting in tune to the straight and narrow, it was JJ Cale).
It would be a mistake to think of these performances as blueprints for other artists to flesh out. In their own understated way, his albums contained great performances (and never mind his self-deprecating comments about them). Not all of his best songs are well-known, by the way, nor did was all the best stuff at the beginning. It would be hard to top his ninth album, Travel-Log, and his collaboration with Eric Clapton, The Road to Escondido, is another gem.
I saw two more JJ Cale concerts. One was at a sold-out show where it was clear that he was playing to the converted, and ironically he seemed less comfortable performing for that crowd than the folks at the ski resort. About 20 years later I drove up to Ann Arbor to see him at a small club called The Ark. When I walked in it was clear that in this intimate space I was going to witness the up close and personal JJ Cale, something that almost seemed like a paradox.
At the beginning of the show a single spotlight shined down on silhouette of JJ Cale, who was sitting on a stool and facing off to the side. While strumming his guitar, he started to turn. This happened very slowly, and it took a while before the audience could see his face. In fact, it wasn’t until he was facing the mic that the crowd realized JJ Cale was sporting the biggest grin you ever saw. That took the audience very much by surprise: laughter, cheers and clapping accompanied his greeting.
JJ was much chattier that night than any other time I saw him. He told stories and joked a lot, and during that concert it was his easy to connect the man on stage with the wild scenes that were described in many of his songs. For the first time that I had seen him in concert, he seemed to be among friends.
Jeff Wilson writes for the music section of The Absolute Sound, and has published feature articles in Cincinnati Magazine, crawdaddy.com, and other magazines and websites.