By James Calemine
Some of Eric Clapton’s biggest hits (“After Midnight” and “Cocaine”) were J.J. Cale songs, so it’s only fitting the two guitar slingers finally recorded an album together. The Road To Escondido marks a fine collection of songs based on Clapton and Cale’s undeniable strengths. Musical guests on this CD include: Steve Jordan, Derek Trucks, John Mayer, Taj Mahal, Willie Weeks, Albert Lee, the late Billy Preston, and Doyle Bramhall II.
Co-produced by Cale and Clapton, eleven of the fourteen songs were written by Cale. Recorded in August of 2005, the low-key, underplayed sound on this CD exceeds expectation in this age of over-hyped superstar collaborations. Throughout his career Clapton often cited his admiration and respect for Cale’s songwriting and guitar skills.
The opening track, “Danger”, calls to mind Cale’s early work with touches of gospel organ. The subdued “Heads In Georgia” finds Clapton’s singing on lead vocals for the first time on the CD. The Road To Escondido forces the listener to pay attention to who’s playing the stellar guitar licks. “Missing Person” contains a barroom piano that shuffles along with a lazy Cale guitar riff highlighted by Derek Trucks’ inimitable solo.
Clapton sings “When This War Is Over”, an up-tempo tune–along the lines of “Call Me The Breeze”–directed at the country’s political atmosphere in these modern times. By this time, listening to the CD it’s clear The Road To Escondido is a strong collection, and sonically quite pleasing to hear. Each song is peppered with great, mercurial licks performed with flawless precision by seasoned professionals.
The old blues cover “Sporting Life Blues” is rendered with a quiet jazzy backdrop with Clapton singing and Cale’s subtle Les Paul influenced licks. “It’s Easy” sounds like it was recorded on a rural back porch somewhere in the swamp, but would certainly cause a stir in front of an audience from a Friday night fairground stage.
John Mayer’s “Hard To Thrill”, a slow R & B composition, makes room for each player to inject various shots of soul. If one were forced to choose a weak link on The Road To Escondido this might be the one song. “Anyway The Wind Blows” conjures up J.J. Cale’s laid back mojo that made him famous. Clapton’s tune, “Three Little Girls”, harkens a short, sweet-tempered Mississippi John Hurt influenced acoustic lullaby dedicated to loved ones, accompanied by Taj Mahal’s tasteful harmonica. “Cry Sister Cry” sounds like an outtake from Cale’s Troubadour album with a slicker, more polished, aesthetic.
“Last Will And Testament” straddles various music styles of jazz, blues, and country, yet carries a real strength in Cale’s ability to make everything sound so simple. Clapton’s vocal take on “Who Am I Telling You”, perhaps this CD’s centerpiece song, calls to mind “slowhand” at his most convincing as Derek Trucks’ crying slide floats throughout the song like some old familiar ghost.
The final track, “Ride The River”, sounds different than any Clapton or Cale song, and their vocal harmonizing calls to mind a warm down-home feel, with a pastoral depiction of an old riverboat; a tune that might have found a home on one of The Band’s first two records, complete with the fading guitar solo deferred to Cale.
The Road To Escondido proves a solid piece of work and worthy of purchase for any serious music aficionado.