J.J. Cale is one of rock’s greatest guitarists, and would probably be recognized as such if his six-string abilities weren’t so overshadowed by his songwriting. “After Midnight,” “Cocaine,” “Call Me The Breeze” and “Crazy Mama” are just a few of his compositions that have proved classics in his catalog, hits when covered by others, and guitar giants such as Clapton and Knopfler number among Cale’s devotees.
But Cale is known to keep such a low profile, in the early days of his career some questioned if there actually was a “J.J. Cale” – wondering if this character were an alter ego for one or more big-name artists. In 30 years, he has released albums (about a baker’s dozen) at a relaxed pace that befits his laid back, anti-showbiz personality, and live appearances have become increasingly rare – not that they were ever that common.
So, following a five-year hiatus from the recording studio, a collection of 14 songs, old and new, performed on the road by the man who wrote ’em, backed by gang of like-minded, understated players, is a special treat indeed. Aside from “Ride Me High,” recorded in 1990 with an all-star ensemble that included keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bassist Tim Drummond, and the late Steve Douglas on sax, the material was recorded at various venues, from San Francisco’s intimate Great American Music Hall to Carnegie Hall, between 1993 and ’96. Providing support are old buddies such as Jimmy Karstein (drums), Bill Raffensperger (bass), and Christine Lakeland (rhythnm guitar and a duet vocal on “Money Talks,” which she co-wrote with Cale).
Throughout, Cale’s guitar relies on tone and taste rather than flash. Like the songs themselves, his snakey soloing is a master class in how to say a lot (and get your point heard) with just a little. And even when he adds a little crunch, as on “Living Here Too,” the aim is to add intensity without wasting a lot of notes or energy. And, as usual, he succeeds. A must-have. See backporchrecords.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.