Eric Clapton calls his new album of J.J. Cale songs an appreciation rather than a tribute, and that word choice gets at the appealingly modest vibe of this record.
In spite of cameos by heavy-hitting guitar guys like Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler and John Mayer, “The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale” – which honors the roots-music cult hero who died a year ago – dispenses with the grandstanding that bogs down most tribute albums; it sounds more like the product of an impromptu jam session.
Clapton opens this disc with “Call Me the Breeze,” which Lynyrd Skynyrd turned into a hit. But he otherwise sidesteps Cale’s best-known songs, focusing instead on gems such as the taut, funky “Rock and Roll Records” and the delicate “Magnolia,” with a beautifully understated vocal by Mayer.
Willie Nelson turns up for a pair of acoustic country tunes, “Songbird” and “Starbound,” while Knopfler’s singing in “Someday” demonstrates how much he was pulling from Cale in Dire Straits. And Clapton and Mayer keep their soloing to a tasteful minimum in “Don’t Wait,” which fades out after a quick 2 1/2 minutes.
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Does it sound like I’m congratulating a bunch of rock stars simply for restraining themselves? I suppose I am. But like Cale’s unique charm, that’s a rare occurrence worth celebrating.