The “J.J.” stands for Jean-Jacques, did you know that?
Thanks to the magic of the Internet and a spot of good luck, I managed to get myself into the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz last night to see the great J.J. Cale. (Without conscious intent, I seem to be moving alphabetically through my list of Bands I’ve Not Yet Seen; a few weeks ago it was Cake at the Fox Theatre, next maybe it will be Calexico?) Since it was a will-call deal there is no ticket stub, and in a few days I’ll probably forget it ever happened; so I wanted to jot down a few impressions while I still have them.
J.J. Cale is low-key with a lowercase “l.” If you look up “mellow” in the dictionary, you see his picture, except he’s got his head down and you can’t really say for sure if it’s him. Onstage he looks like he’s putting out almost no effort at all, though clearly a lot of work has gone into his songs and a lot of skill goes into his playing. He spent most of the show half-sitting on a comfortable stool, coaxing lazy shuffles and tasty licks from his guitar and singing, sort of. He doesn’t sing the songs so much as insinuate them. There are blues singers, blues shouters, and blues talkers, but there aren’t many blues whisperers like J.J. Cale.
Cale quickly established his atmosphere, which is a pleasant, slightly somnolent groove that varies little from song to song. There are slower songs (“Magnolia” comes to mind) and faster songs, but even “After Midnight,” a hard rocker in Eric Clapton’s hands, didn’t reach a BPM much above standing heartbeat level. Speaking of Clapton, Cale has been a reliable source of material for Slowhand over the years; at least three of the songs Cale performed have been covered by Clapton, and though I’m not the biggest Clapton fan, his technical wizardry and Cale’s bedrock songcraft are a perfect combination. Though Cale’s renditions of these songs he wrote are perfectly lovely, I couldn’t help but yearn occasionally for a little bit more fire.
But that’s not what you get with J.J. Cale; his brand is well-established, and it’s built on soothing tones ideally suited for aging stoners like, well, em, people I know. Some of the folks around me appeared to repeatedly nod off, then rouse themselves to applaud at the end of a song; in most cases this would be the sign of a bad show, but I think these people were spending time in their happy place. Others danced placidly in the aisles, and one guy swayed back and forth rhythmically over his walker.
When Cale finally stood up from his stool for the last song of the main set, “Call Me the Breeze,” the crowd went wild. Well, wildish. Then it was all over and we walked out into the cool coastal night, not rocked so much but definitely rolled — with no sweaty exhaustion and no ringing in the ears, just a mild elevation and no hangover.