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J.J. Cale: Lax Style, Solid Show


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — If J.J. Cale wrote recipes instead of songs, each one would call for cooking at a simmer, never a boil.

This notoriously laid-back native Oklahoman showed Saturday at the Coach House that, contrary to the hedonistic vow of his most famous song, "After Midnight," a rocker needn't "let it all hang out" to put on a performance that's tasty and full of juice.

Grizzled and bespectacled under a broad-brimmed hat, Cale, 57, looked more like an uncle at a family picnic than a songwriting and guitar-playing ace whose blues- and country-based style has greatly influenced the likes of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler.

As a singer, Cale was as relaxed as they come, his drawl sometimes falling to a hard-to-decipher murmur. But his phrasing was usually playful and alert, and his melodies are so solid and pithy that they didn't require elaboration.

This resident of rural San Diego County seldom plays shows nowadays, which means he is keeping a lot of good stuff to himself. Cale and his superb, perfectly attuned band of rootsy players kept it short before an appreciative, near-capacity house, running through a 20-song set of his compact songs and a handful of blues covers in under 80 minutes. But every moment was scrumptious.

Tastiest of all was Cale's guitar playing, as he strolled the stage, flicking off finger- and thumb-picked riffs and solos with an almost casual authority.

Given the liquid, coursing tone of much of his playing, Cale got the most out of his more assertive gestures. The firmly struck chords and edgy, scraping tones he threw in from time to time had the relative impact of a windmilling Pete Townshend flailing his fingers bloody.

Smiling often, Cale took obvious pleasure in his five-member band. Christine Lakeland on second guitar and piano player Rocky Frisco--a gray bearded, cowboy-hatted fellow whose old-prospector look fit perfectly with his horse-operatic name--both got vocal and instrumental solos. Lakeland showed plenty of bluesy personality on a Chicago-style shuffle, while Frisco's spotlight number took a funky-blues detour to New Orleans. Drummer James Cruce, percussionist Jim Karstein and bassist Bill Rassensperger created a rhythmic pocket deep enough to make a trial lawyer salivate.

Cale framed his main set playfully. He opened solo on the furtive "Cajun Moon," then added players one by one on each subsequent number. At the other end was "Mama Don't." Its amusing list of things musical that "Mama don't allow" ("Mama don't want no bass in this space . . . Mama don't want no git-tar playing 'round here . . .") forced another player into offstage exile with each chorus, amid some low-key hamming.

While his albums remain solid in the '90s, Cale stuck almost entirely to material from the '70s and early '80s. The crowd sang along unbidden on "Crazy Mama," his only Top 40 hit as a performer, and it relished a first encore that opened with the graceful, intimate love song "Magnolia," then picked up the pace with "Call Me the Breeze" and a version of "Cocaine" that gave a slight Caribbean tinge to the beat.

Listen to Cale's new album, "Guitar Man," and you'll find a pronounced dark streak from a songwriter who has some major reservations about where the planet is headed. Those particular songs didn't turn up, but he closed with a second encore of three songs that burrowed deeply into a similar mood of anxiety. Generating drama without straining for it, Cale sang about desperately impoverished people in "Tijuana," of crumbling delusions in "Artificial Paradise" and of "Hard Times" in a coolly sinewy blues-rock finale.

It's one thing for a punk band to sound blasts of warning, but when a laid-back, unassuming fellow like J.J. Cale starts getting this anxious, maybe there really is something to worry about. At least, as this extremely satisfying performance demonstrated, the tension isn't interfering with his ability to get all the guitar licks just right.

Orange County opener Avenue C went for a heartland/mainstream rock approach that fell somewhere between Eddie Money and John Mellencamp in songs that tended to go on longer than necessary, despite solid instrumental work. Leader Larry Hall sang with conviction, but his straining, insufficiently melodic voice didn't wear well over 45 minutes.

Cradle and All, a recently formed acoustic trio from Long Beach, needs more time to better integrate accordionist Diane Barkauskas, who was secondary to what was otherwise an unremarkable acoustic set by guitarist Stan DeWitt and singer Lisa Bode. DeWitt came off well in "Waltzing on the Deck of the Titanic," a folkish number about keeping one's spirits up despite difficulties. Bode's singing was inconsistent and overly formal. Her low point was a terribly overwrought reading of J.D. Souther's "Faithless Love" that substituted harsh, exaggerated vibrato for natural emotion.

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