Two artists had an enormous impact on Eric Clapton's music in the '70s: Delaney & Bonnie and J.J. Cale. Clapton joined Delaney & Bonnie's backing band after Cream dissolved, an experience that helped him ease away from the bombast of the power trio and into the blend of soul, blues, pop, and rock that defined his solo sound. Delaney Bramlett helped steer Clapton's eponymous 1970 solo debut, which not only came very close to replicating the sound of Delaney & Bonnie's records from that time, but also had a rollicking version of J.J. Cale's "After Midnight" that was Clapton's first solo hit. Cale's influence surfaced again a few years later on Clapton's 1978 album Slowhand, which not only had J.J.'s sardonic "Cocaine" as its centerpiece but also drew heavily from Cale's laconic groove. Although Clapton progressively polished his sound over the course of the '80s, dabbling in pop along the way, he never quite strayed from the blueprint that he wrote based on his love of Cale's music, so his decision to team up with Cale for a full-fledged duet album called The Road to Escondido in 2006 felt natural, perhaps even overdue. After all, Clapton's work has borne the imprint of Cale's sound for over three decades now, so a duet record 36 years after Eric had a hit with "After Midnight" feels right. Initially, Clapton planned to cut a record with Cale functioning as a producer, but the project morphed into a duet album where Cale has a stronger presence than Clapton: the superstar might have brought in his longtime producer/collaborator Simon Climie, who has helmed every one of his records since 1998's Pilgrim, but Cale brought in members of his backing band and wound up writing 11 of the album's 14 tracks, effectively dominating The Road to Escondido. Even if Cale is the driving force behind the album, it's easy to listen to the album and think otherwise, since Climie gives this a precise, polished production that's entirely too slick for the rootsy music the duo plays, which in turn makes it sonically similar to all Clapton albums of the past ten years. Also, there are a lot of cameos from familiar pros (drummer Steve Jordan; bassist Pino Palladino; guitarists Albert Lee, Derek Trucks, and John Mayer; the late Billy Preston in some of his last sessions), giving this a crisp, professional vibe more in line with Clapton than Cale.
But the real reason that it would be easy to mistake The Road to Escondido as a solo Eric Clapton effort is that it's nearly impossible to distinguish him from J.J. Cale throughout the entire record. Sure, there aren't nearly as many synths as there were on Reptile or the stilted adult pop of Back Home, but the laid-back groove -- even when the music starts jumping, it never breaks a sweat -- sounds like a Clapton record through and through. More than that, The Road to Escondido reveals exactly how much Clapton learned from Cale's singing; their timbre and phrasing is nearly identical, to the point that it's frequently hard to discern who is singing when. Disconcerting this may be, but it's hardly bad, since it never feels like Clapton is copying Cale; instead, it shows their connection, that they're kindred spirits. And if Clapton popularized Cale's sound, he's paying him back with this record, which will bring him to a wider audience -- and Cale, in turn, has given Clapton his best record in a long time by focusing Clapton on this soulful, mellow groove and giving him a solid set of songs. While it is hard not to wish that there was a little less NPR slickness and a little more grit to the record -- this is roots music after all, so it should have some dirt to it -- this is still a very appealing record, capturing the duo working the same territory that's served them both well over the years but still finding something new there, largely because they're doing it together and clearly enjoying each other's company. It's relaxed and casual in the best possible sense: it doesn't sound lazy, it sounds lived-in, even with Climie's too-clean production, and that vibe -- coupled with Cale's sturdy songs -- makes this is an understated winner. This CD was nominated for a Grammy award in 2007 for Best Contemporary Blues Album.