by Michael Corcoran
Tuesday night J.J. Cale rocked a sold-out Texas Union Ballroom to its rafters — and you could still hear your foot tapping on the hardwood floors. The 63-year-old Oklahoma native created a beautiful tension by playing groove-oriented songs such as “Louisiana Night” and “Anyway the Wind Blows” in an impossibly laid-back way — his vocals mumbled like afterthoughts, and his sinewy guitar notes sounded as if they were coming through a tiny Pignose amp. The loudest thing onstage was Cale‘s red shirt.
Like a Zen master of boogie blues, Cale created a transcendent sound that was daring without a scent of artiness, gut-stirring without the rhythmic kicks. Even the occasional, empty-headed shouts of “oww-ooo!” from the youngish crowd (Widespread Panic covers “Travelin’ Light”) couldn’t disrupt the deep, trancelike proceedings.
He came onstage all alone at 9 p.m. sharp and opened his first Austin show in 15 years with an instrumental designed more for limbering up than listening, then drawled “How y’all doin’?” as if he was across a lunch counter. For the first half-hour it was just Cale and his guitar, reflowing such hits as “After Midnight” and reclaiming “Travelin’ Light.” He didn’t talk much, but he did tell a funny story about how after Eric Clapton covered “After Midnight” it kept turning up on commercials for everything from beer to allergy medication. “Here’s one that Eric did that never ended up on a commercial,” he said later, going into the unmistakable riff of “Cocaine.” When longtime guitarist Christine Lakeland came onstage to assist on “Ride Me High,” the soft dynamics didn’t change — her gentle touch added only a few colors.
Near the end of the set, Cale yielded the mic to Lakeland, who had written a song about our town in preparation for a gig here a few years ago that was eventually canceled. “I’ve waited for this moment and it’s all come true/It’s good to be in Austin with you,” she sang. Indeed, the night seemed special in a return-of-the-kindred-spirit way.
For the first of two encores, Cale called up opening act Ray Wylie Hubbard, and the two Okies did a somewhat rusty but good-natured version of “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” made famous by fellow Okla-homeboy Woody Guthrie — a bit of looseness amid the steady burrow. The seated audience leaned forward throughout the performance to take in every precious decibel. By 10:20 p.m., when Cale waved goodbye, they were drained, although they’d hardly moved. Rarely does mellow have such might.