The Road to Escondido – J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton
Reprise Records 44418
The problem with Eric Clapton is that when he isn’t paying homage to the great bluesmen he is trying to be an AM-radio singles star, which was precisely the old bag that the Yardbirds were trying to destroy. It would take Jeff Beck to ignite the Yardies innovative spark and Jimmy Page to extrapolate its fiery essence into another dimension. Clapton went onto a series of solo projects, peaking with Derek and the Dominoes before settling into a three-year exclusive affair with heroin from 1971-74. When he returned from his soul-grinding malaise, he began a 30 year-plus liaison with laidback rock occasionally inspiring but often derivative and underachieving for the gifted gunslinger.
J.J. Cale — the writer of “Cocaine” in which Clapton garnered a hit in the 70s — has not had the same identity crisis. His long career has always floated along the edge of wise eccentricity, alluring licks and gut-hardened songcraft. The new album by the blues duo seems like an incredibly natural fit; however, one that straddles that fine line between the elusive “hit song” hook and pure bar band twangy swang. Cale’s guitar and voice intersperse quite well with Slowhand throughout the album, especially on the lazy day, warm romantic vibe of “Missing Person,” its follow-up leftist lament, “When the War is Over,” and the fiddle-and-cracker hoedown, “Dead End Road” — a true Dylanesque standout that could have been on Highway 61 Revisited or Modern Times.
“Hard to Thrill,” dips into an almost Walter Becker and Donald Fagen parallel universe as Slowhand takes a stab at the piano and soft guitar dental hygiene imagery and triumphs with a weird atonal solo from Cale who takes the song deeper into the nightlife before Clapton extends its exotic panoramic theme with a tasteful solo that eventually includes some minimalist distortion. If this track is the state of modern blues — a mixture of Steely Dan, B.B. King and, yes, Eric Clapton — I endorse the gypsy dirge motif, albeit with reservations. The album’s penultimate track “Who Am I Telling You?” also reaches a lofty peak while mining a dusty dirge surface. Clapton delivers a late model Dylan vocal — that influence, again — while Cale sounds like Clapton’s long lost brother with a fine verse contribution before escorting his friend on a noble bit of humble chorus.
Overall? Clapton was smart to align himself with Cale after traipsing around Europe with Derek Trucks on co-lead, rhythm and slide guitar. After all, what’s a Slowhand to do but search back to his own set of inspirations much like the younger guitar God from the Allman Brothers? Hopefully, Clapton will remember that it’s never too late to take up the gauntlet and reach beyond the earnest respect of another’s muse and seek his own.