Monday, November 24, 2008

The Road To Escondido: Review

In 2006, two men with a love for a particular kind of blues song came out with an album. It was called The Road To Escondido, the two bluesmen were Eric Clapton and JJ Cale. Clapton, of course, needs no introduction. But history has not served Cale as well. He is known primarily for being the main influence on the guitar sound of Mark Knopfler, and second for being the guy who wrote ‘Cocaine’, later made famous by Clapton (who also covered his 'After Midnight'). But his distinctive country-blues sound and guitar playing was also an influence on Clapton. So while many dubbed this as a good chance for Cale to finally bask in the limelight, Clapton likely saw it as just another opportunity to play with another of his idols.

‘Danger’ opens with the lovely warm organ sounds of Billy Preston (his last recorded work before his death), but only becomes truly dangerous when Clapton hits his first solo. It is surprisingly lyrical, and one realises that he is probably playing his own version of a Cale solo, which has the effect of freeing him from the strict self-imposed structures he stays within when he plays straight blues. The result is transporting, and is backed up perfectly by a typically sharp, precise Cale solo. This sets the tone for the rest of the album, both guitarists on the money, entwining yet completely distinct. They sing together on a number of songs, which helps immensely as both have pleasant but harmless voices (this has been a grey area on their solo efforts, where the thinness of the singing fails to back up the brilliance of the guitar playing).

The overall sound, country-blues, blues straight up, and a little south of the border feeling, is strongly reminiscent of early Dire Straits (though Cale fans would argue that Knopfler’s early sound was rooted in Cale’s). There are only two Clapton compositions on the album, and they are excellent, one a slow blues burn with John Mayer playing in his recent heavy, Vaughnesque style, the other an acoustic piece on the joys of fatherhood, with Taj Mahal playing some wistful harmonica. The rest are all Cale compositions, and are consistent with his songwriting style – street-smart lines tossed off casually, often too casually for them to be very memorable. So one is forced to fall back on the music – and luckily, it is uniformly excellent. Clapton and Cale spur each other on to some inspired, non-competitive playing. The others chip in as well. Preston’s organ wraps the album in lovely, warm waves. Mayer holds his own on guitar (and thankfully, doesn’t break the flow with a contrived ‘guest vocal’). Derek Trucks, guitarist for the current lineup of the Allman Brothers band, and nephew of Butch Trucks, the original band’s drummer, provides some luminous, almost sitar-like slide playing. The horns are muted, there is little distortion, Clapton resists ADT, and everyone desists from protracted soloing. The result is the best part-playing heard in years, outside of Bob Dylan’s recent backing band. The Road to Escondido is a better album than fans of either artist could have hoped for, and perversely, considering the legendary status of both men involved, the album that they deserved and had been made to wait for a long time.

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