J. J. Cale and Eric Clapton: The Road to EscondidoReprise, CD, Rs. 395Sometime in 1968, the rock supergroup Cream folded and Eric Clapton started casting around for a new musical direction. He was "adopted" by Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, with whom he began to perform as a supporting guitarist though, thanks to contractual restrictions, he went unbilled and uncredited. Moving to New York a year later, he released his first solo album ( Eric Clapton) shortly thereafter, with support from the Bramletts and their backing band. It spun off a No. 18 pop hit "After Midnight", a cover of a J.J. Cale song, and laid the groundwork for a completely reinvented, much more mellow Clapton sound, which leaned more on country than on blues. The decision to turn over a new musical leaf was a momentous one, because he soon went on to form Derek and The Dominoes, and achieve great success with his next big hit "Layla." Much later in 1978 another Cale tune, "Cocaine," was the centrepiece of his Slowhand album. And indeed it was these two Clapton cover versions that became hits, and exposed the low-key Cale to the wider musical world.

An enigma

Though Clapton never performed with Cale before this album, his musical thread to Cale was via Delaney and Bonnie, and also Derek and The Dominoes guitarist Carl Radle, all of whom had collaborated with Cale earlier on in their careers. Highly influential as a musician, Jean Jacques Cale the person was an enigma, a maverick who traced his roots to Oklahoma. Born in 1938, he had picked up guitar at age 10, and gone on to craft an enduring style whose trademarks are a shuffling steady-rolling tempo, subtly understated honky-tonk guitar licks served up with a dollop of blues, and (usually pithy) lyrics delivered in a weather-beaten middle-register mumble. In less able hands, this formula could degenerate into sheer tedium, but Cale exacts a strange magic out of it that has garnered him a fanatical following which includes such high-profile musicians as Eric Clapton and Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler. If Chuck Berry pioneered the country sound in blues and rock and roll, it is probably Cale who is the best exponent of the blues sound in the country and western idiom.Cale's first band, formed in 1966, was called The Leathercoated Minds, and maybe remembered by posterity if only for its name. Though his independent spirit and relaxed approach to his art never quite gelled with the commercial side of the music business, he nevertheless had some minor hits of his own, such as "Magnolia," (later covered by Jose Feliciano), "The Sensitive Kind" (covered by Santana, also by John Mayall), "Crazy Mama" and "They Call Me The Breeze" (later covered in spectacular fashion by Lynryd Skynryd). Though he had become a cult figure by then, mediocre record sales in the early eighties frustrated him, and caused him to hibernate for seven years as a recluse in a mobile trailer home on the outskirts of L.A.

Sounds familiar

The current album strongly bears the Cale stamp, and Clapton pays ample tribute to his early Seventies mentor by playing and sounding exactly like him. With the exception of the tracks "Sporting Life Blues" (by Brownie McGhee), "Hard to Thrill" (by Clapton and John Mayer) and "Three Little Girls" (by Clapton), the remaining 11 tracks are all by Cale. He retains his strong country trait of spinning a brief tale with each song, and some of his compositions here sound very familiar. For instance, the antiwar blues "When This War Is Over" is basically a reworked "They Call Me The Breeze," though this time around there are strong electric guitar solos from Clapton to flesh it out. My picks on this album would be "When The War Is Over", "Sporting Life Blues," "Hard To Thrill" and "It's Easy." There are other luminaries who appear on this outing. Billy Preston (the man responsible for the famous electric piano solos on Beatles hits like "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down") plays the Hammond B-3 organ and electric piano, while Taj Mahal handles harmonica. Unfortunately, Preston died shortly after this album was recorded, and so it is dedicated in part to his memory. VISHWAMBHAR PATI

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