First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2009, Volume 16, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue April 21, 2009, 01:30 AM CDT
J.J. Cale has had a long, successful career as both a recording artist and a songwriter. Over the past 40 years, musicians ranging from Eric Clapton to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Beck have interpreted his songs. In fact, it certainly wouldnít be an exaggeration to suggest that their versions are more popular than Caleís original performances.
Still, at the age of 70, Cale has nothing to prove to anyone. So, his recent decision not only to embark upon a limited tour but also to record his new album Roll On obviously arose from his love of performing, rather than his need for money. On stage in Vancouver on April 10, he joked, "I am happy to be here. While Iím at it, Iíd like to thank Eric Clapton for paying my rent for the last 30 ó no, 40 years."
Cale also made note of how he has had all of the advantages of fame without any of its drawbacks. He confessed that he rarely is recognized in public, which allows him to eat at any Dennyís in the world without anyone interrupting his lunch.
Indeed, it probably is true that even his biggest fans have little insight into Caleís motivations both as a person and an artist. He has often hidden behind his southern persona, where he has been able to downplay his own accomplishments as well as his influence on other musicians. Yet, over the past several decades, he has slowly but surely released a catalogue of work that is defined by his care and attention to detail. As laid back as he may appear on the surface, a single trek through any of his albums is bound to reveal an artist who is deeply involved and meticulous, one who releases a collection of songs only when he feels it is ready. Regardless, while Roll On may be the 15th outing of his career, Cale remains best-known for one endeavor: his 1970 debut Naturally. Based on the fact that he chose to perform almost half of the material from Naturally during his show in Vancouver, itís clear that these songs still resonate with him as much as they do with his followers.
Like many septuagenarian performers, Cale has been forced to acknowledge the passage of time as well as the effects of aging by doing more with less. Unfortunately for him, this approach isnít entirely successful. Because Cale has always been a minimalist, there isnít much left in any of his songs to strip away. The fluidity and grace that once defined his style of guitar playing have suffered, and the abbreviated solos that were low-key when he was in his prime have now been reduced to suggestive brush strokes rather than expressive statements.
There was a time when Cale could say more with a few notes than Clapton could communicate in a whole song. In Vancouver, however, it was sometimes painful to hear the approximations of his former brilliance that he offered to the assembled crowd. He began every song with root chords and strumming before working up to a solo or melodic exploration. Yet, his once fluid fingers seemed cramped, and one could feel that his hands werenít able to communicate the sentiments that his mind and heart wanted to express. Similarly, he sang in a hushed whisper that merely suggested the character of his previously limited, yet emotive voice. Still, Cale seemed relaxed and in good spirits throughout the performance, and he genuinely appeared to enjoy sharing his music.
In contrast to the concert, Roll On is an assured and engaging artistic statement by a musician who still sounds at home in the recording studio. Not surprisingly, it is a casual, relaxed affair that features Cale playing almost every instrument himself. Whether he is tinkling his way through a primitive melody on his keyboard or swinging on the drums, Caleís unique musical personality shines through every track on the set. Light, breezy, and imbued with more jazz accents than ever, Roll On is a delightful collection of 12 tunes, all of which are potentially as memorable as his classic cuts, such as After Midnight, Crazy Mama, or Call Me the Breeze. Some of the highlights include Who Knew and Where the Sun Donít Shine, while the title track boasts a slinky guitar duel between Cale and Clapton that perfectly outlines the difference between how both men approach their instruments.
Nobody knows better than Cale that the likelihood of his recording an album that will replace Naturally in the hearts of his fans is next to nil. Yet, his career trajectory and life choices demonstrate that this is not the point of his endeavors. Cale has always seemed to be content with making music on his own terms, and the subdued textures of Roll On testify to his continued individuality as well as his unique talent. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Roll On is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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