various artists,
Tribute to J.J. Cale, Volume 1: The Vocal Sessions
(Zoho Roots, 2010)

If even now he isn't all that famous, J.J. Cale would be a whole lot more obscure if years ago Eric Clapton hadn't decided to champion his songs, brought him on stages and even recorded with him. (I reviewed their Road to Escondido here on 24 March 2007.) There is the further consideration that Cale is on the reclusive side and has never sought the spotlight. What he's done is release the occasional album since the 1970s. His songs have been covered by a host of blues, rock, country and folk artists, appropriately so since his music is both rooted and adaptable.

Basically, though, he's a bluesman whose sound is at once forward- and backward-looking, urban and rural, sort of outside time and space, as much blues spirit as blues substance. It's a sound that defines him. Every record of his I've heard (far from all of them; there are only so many listening hours in a day) has been an iteration of it. It never fails to please, but because it can also be on the repetitive side, it fuels a desire to hear what others make of it.

On Tribute to J.J. Cale, Volume 1 -- a second volume, which I haven't heard, is devoted to instrumentals -- Cale gets covered by some able blues, rock and other acts. Only the doo-wop Persuasions were known to me, but all of the bands handle their assignments capably, if with varying degrees of distance from the originals. A few of the songs are likely to be familiar to you if you're Cale-cognizant. The most famous, "Cocaine," was a hit for Clapton long ago, covered here by Rufus Huff, who also does "Crazy Mama," again from Cale's first album and the only hit (in 1972) under his own name.

Tim & Roddy Smith's Groove Gang put country-folk-blues arrangements to "Ride Me High" and "Louisiana Women" while preserving the essence of a Cale recording. Greg Skaff & Darryl Johnson's "Don't Wait" is a striking acoustic gospel reinvention. Elsewhere, Jimmy Hall & Swamp Cabbage and Dixie Tabernacle offer up restrained blues-rock Cale style. As always, the material is well crafted with solid grooves and cliche-free lyrics. Tribute is an enjoyably low-key excursion into Cale country.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 July 2011

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