Eric Clapton calls his new album of J.J. Cale songs an appreciation rather than a tribute, and that word choice gets at the appealingly modest vibe of this record.
In spite of cameos by heavy-hitting guitar guys like Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler and John Mayer, "The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale" -- which honors the roots-music cult hero who died a year ago this month -- dispenses with the grandstanding that bogs down most tribute albums (and indeed many Clapton albums); it sounds more like the product of an impromptu jam session.
That approach suits the low-key Cale, whose songs "Cocaine" and "After Midnight" became rock-radio staples after Clapton covered them in the 1970s.
Born in Oklahoma but based for much of his life in Southern California, Cale built his sound from deadpan vocals layered over a propulsive yet unhurried groove. And though it never made Cale a star, the style consistently attracted A-list admirers. It proved hugely durable too: Cale's final studio record, 2009's "Roll On," is basically as good as his 1972 debut, "Naturally."
Clapton opens this disc with the same tune that opened "Naturally," "Call Me the Breeze," which Lynyrd Skynyrd later turned into a hit. But he otherwise sidesteps Cale's best-known songs, focusing instead on gems such as the taut, funky "Rock and Roll Records" and the delicate "Magnolia," sung with beautiful understatement by Mayer.
Willie Nelson turns up for a pair of acoustic country tunes, "Songbird" and "Starbound," while Knopfler's vocal in "Someday" demonstrates how much he was pulling from Cale in Dire Straits. And Clapton and Mayer keep their soloing to a tasteful minimum in "Don't Wait," which fades out fittingly after a quick 2½ minutes.
Does it sound like I'm congratulating a bunch of long-winded rock stars simply for restraining themselves here? I suppose I am. But like Cale's unique charm, that's a rare occurrence worth celebrating.
Eric Clapton & Friends
"The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale"
3 stars out of 4