Cult Classics Album Breakdown 27

JJ Cale – Shades (1981)

In my hometown of Southport, near Liverpool, there is a wonderful independent record store called Quicksilver Music. It was in there, about ten years ago, that I happened to wander when Shades by JJ Cale was pulsing over the speakers. I knew instantly that I had to have it. It just had something about it that kept me in the shop for well over half an hour. Made Quicksilver Music seem cooler than ever, which is no mean feat. The owner, Dave, a lovely guy with a fountain of music knowledge, often spots me coming to this day and puts something on that he thinks I’ll like (LOL!). Then he leaves the case on the counter – bait, so to speak, for the vulnerable record collector.

Needless to say, Shades got swallowed whole, and praise the Lord.

A lot made sense once I’d got my hands on this record. I started to understand what the likes of Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and John Mayer had been listening to whilst homing their own craft. It started to make sense too, having read into it more, why Clapton particularly has always acknowledged and championed this man more than most. And, when reading the sleeve notes, it’s hardly a surprise, all considered, that JJ could call upon such stellar backing musicians for Shades – pianist Bill Payne, drummers Jim Keltner and Russ Kunkel, and legendary former-Elvis guitarist, James Burton, to name a few.

So, to the highlights. If I’m honest there are no low lights. This is a remarkably consistent record. It opens with the groovy Carry On, demonstrating Cale’s insistence on understated vocals left way back in the soup, and limb-tingling shuffle rhythm. It’s a killer hook, leading into the equally hypnotising Deep Dark Dungeon – another characteristically short but captivating novella of a song. JJ Cale doesn’t do the prog thing; he strikes a chord, delivers, then gets the hell out of there within three minutes.

Wish I Had Not Said That is a lighter shuffle with a particularly stripped back sound – it feels like you’re in the studio watching it being recorded, in fact. Pack My Jack is stereotypical JJ – smoky-bar, post-midnight Blues; both simple and sturdy. This is the gift of Cale – his tunes feel like they’ve been around forever. If You Leave Her is somewhat funky – a wah-wah infused jaunt, demonstrating JJ’s ability to slightly alter the goalposts. Friendly and inviting, it’s a sound that reels you in like a greedy Carp.

Mama Don’t, one of the album highlights, is an infectious, mischievous lyric riding over a jilted twelve-bar blues: “Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / I don’t care what Mama don’t allow / Gonna play my guitar anyhow/No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ in here.” And quite right – who cares what Mama don’t want, right? Get that amp turned up to 11…

Runaround is Jazz soaked Blues in which Cale’s lyrics, about a woman giving him the ‘runaround’, hark back to traditional blues themes of old. What Do You Expect is lively bop-rock, Love Has Been Gone a nod to Cale’s Country influences, and the album’s final track, Cloudy Day, a moody but adorable instrumental in which guitar and saxophone duel beautifully – similarities could be drawn with Peter Green’s famed Albatross. A staggering end to a great record without a single stray note or unnecessary decorative filigree.

JJ Cale – a lifelong snubber of limelight and conscious avoider of Rock-star ‘celebrity’ – is now a cult hero. Heralded as the creator of the Tulsa Sound, Cale single-handedly pioneered a genre that fused Country, Blues, Rockabilly and Jazz. Clapton is chiefly responsible for Cale’s cult status, having made two of Cale’s songs – Cocaine and After Midnight – huge hits for himself in the 70’s. Admirers of the man also include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brian Ferry – what a collection of references! His laid-back, horizontal sound is compelling, and I feel there is no better example than this stunning album, Shades.

In 2005 JJ Cale released a DVD called To Tulsa And Back – a career spanning documentary that gives a great insight into this reclusive legend and his wonderful musical achievements. He was Leon Russell’s studio technician before being nudged towards making his own records, and never lost that sense of humility. His back catalogue is a must for any guitar lover – and there’s no better way to start than with this album, Shades.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Carry On

Mama Don’t

Cloudy Day


Being early doesn’t always pay…

The year was 2010.

And, sorry, I’m going to ruin the story straight away by assuring you that everything ended well.

However, it began terribly.

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood announced a really unexpected joint tour – and by joint, I don’t mean two separate sets – they were promising a full show on stage together. I got straight on the phone to my bandmate Adrian and spilled a million reasons why we had to be there. He listened patiently then informed me that his arm didn’t need to be twisted up his back. And so, that was that.

The closest gig was at Birmingham LG Arena, so we booked tickets months in advance and excited ourselves stupid with every mention of it. After all, both these legends were getting on. Right?

The date of the gig was the 18th May, 2010. It was clearly written on the ticket. They had arrived at my house, and been filed away safely, away from reckless lurking hands ‘cleaning up’ or the overly-vexatious boxer dog. In fact, I’d slipped them inside my vinyl copy of The Beatles’ Blue Album. That was the Holy Grail in my house that no-one else dare touch.

I’ve always loved the feel of a concert ticket in my hand. They feel like freedom and possibility and exhilaration. I love the writing on them, big and bold…a famous name that promises to become a face, right in front of you. The curious hologram. The date – a moment of your personal history captured in print. That thrilling line of punched holes, ready to be ripped by a bored concierge with spots and sincere disinterest. The type that have no idea who the legends are you’re going to see.

Adrian, the great guitar player and co-singer in our regularly gigging duo, Little Wing, had nothing to do with the admin. I handled it, paid for it, and he simply reimbursed the cash. I was just about as experienced a gig-goer as anyone you could possibly meet from my generation. I’d watched hundreds, all over the world. I could reel a few off to impress you if you like? The Eagles in Melbourne, Australia. Chuck Berry in Luxembourg City. The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple in Paris. Paul Weller in Benacassim, Spain. Leonard Cohen in Montruex, Switzerland. I could go on, but I’m sensing you hating me already.

The point being, I’d been on trains, planes, ferries, trams, buses, cars…basically everything but horseback to get to gigs. Logistically, for a daydreaming technophobe, I was pretty slick. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, how about this.

“Hey, Adrian, you ready for the gig this week?”

“Yes, great.”

“You fancy driving? We’ll split the petrol?” (Tactical – he’s not really a drinker).

“No problem. Let’s set off early and get there in good time.”

So, off we went on our two-plus hour jaunt down the M6 to Birmingham playing Clapton and Winwood CD’s, riling ourselves up for the gig of a lifetime.

Upon arrival in Birmingham we were surprised by the lack of traffic.

“I knew setting off early was a good idea,” Adrian said.

I’d spotted a McDonalds, so my attention was otherwise occupied.

“Yep,” I said.

When we landed at Birmingham LG Arena a short while later, we were even more astonished to see no cars in the car park. In fact, the whole place was a ghost town. The barrier was down, and when we approached the gate a baffled looking security guy stepped out of a small hut and approached the van.

“Can I help, lads?”

“Hi mate, yeah, we’re here for the Clapton / Winwwod gig,” Adrian said since he lingered at the driver’s side.

“The what?”

I leant over. “Eric Clapton,” I reiterated. “And Steve Winwood. Here. Tonight.”

What?”

I wanted to shout THE FUCKING GIG! but the genuine concern spreading across the bloke’s face stopped me in my tracks. Adrian turned to face me and that sinking feeling melted me into my seat.

“No gig on here tonight, Lads,” the Brummy chap said, hands aloft in apology.

“Fucking hell,” I whispered, pulling the tickets out of the envelope. The guy stuck around for the climax. “But it says here, the Birmingham LG Arena, tonight.”

The guy leant into the car to see the tickets in my hand. Then he slowly withdrew.

“That ticket says 18th May, mate. It’s the 11th today.”

Well, my ass fell clean through the van flooring. Adrian laughed. I sank back into my seat, horrified by my own stupidity. Other people might have punched me. Adrian said:

“Let’s go get something to eat.”

The only compensation for such a mistake was that we arrived a week early and not a week late, but it wasn’t round the corner. We made the best of the situation, and had a rather nice curry before making the trip home.

The following week we made the gig, on the correct day. We even got there for the correct time and sat in the right seats. We did really well. Clapton and Winwood were superb – a raucous mix of tunes from both solo careers, Cream, Traffic, Derek & The Dominoes, The Spencer Davis Group and some covers too. A career spanning retrospective by two of England’s finest. Clapton’s slowhand was on fire, and Winwood’s voice better than ever. Well worth the two trips!

© Southport Reporter

Anyway, we’re still friends. We still play music.

I don’t book the tickets anymore.