While it’s easy for some to simply toss the sound and songs of guitarist Robert Cray on the shelf as a slick (i.e. inauthentic) player alongside other modern blues-rock pop artists, it’s important to consider the veteran songwriter’s open-minded approach and respectful, refined delivery of roots music. Well-acclaimed yet underappreciated, he’s one of the real-deal cats still playing the real-deal blues.
Both as a skilled journeyman electric guitar player and as an inspired, expressive soul crooner, Cray built a career on mixing the traditional with the contemporary — classic blues and soul styles with modern pop, rock, and funk.
Charleston promotion group Shoreline Productions and Ear For Music present Robert Cray and his longtime backing band at the Charleston Music Hall on Sun. Jan. 21. Cray and the guys have been touring in support of their latest release, a 14-song double-disc live album titled Live From Across The Pond (Nozzle/Vanguard).
“A lot of people come because they remember the songs,” Cray acknowledges, speaking by phone from Los Angeles last week. “We’ll play ‘Smoking Gun’ here and there … ‘Right Next Door,’ ‘Because of Me’ and all that. We get into the book and have fun. People know the band for the blues thing, but they also know us for the popular thing … plus all the other flavors, like gospel, soul … it’s a great mix, so we just get on stage and have fun with it all.”
Born in Columbus, Ga., in 1953, Cray got his start in music playing blues and rock ‘n’ roll as a teenager before relocating to Eugene, Ore. in the early 1970s. His early years as a professional guitarist were spent in a group called One Way Street, often backing the legendary Albert Collins.
He broke into the pop/electric blues mainstream in the mid ’80s with the album Strong Persuader and single “Smoking Gun.” The massive success of the album and an overwhelming appreciation for Cray’s eloquent guitar work and reappraisal of traditional blues styles helped prompt the ’80s blues and roots music revival.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, he collaborated with a variety of blues, rock, and soul greats, including Collins, B.B. King, Johnny Copeland, the Memphis Horns, and David Sanborn.
Cray’s recent recordings have dabbled in new musical flavors — from Middle Eastern and Indian sitar sounds to samba and Latin jazz. His latest studio album, 2005’s Twenty (Sanctuary), moved mostly at a mid-tempo pace. The title track is a slow-burning anti-war tune in 6/8 time aimed at the “rich man’s war” in Iraq.
“Our music has always had a little bit of everything in it, so it’s hard to peg us in one spot — and I like that,” says Cray. “If we say that we’re a blues band, there’ll be a million people who would argue the opposite [laughs]. ‘Man, they don’t play no blues!’ But we just call it our music.”
Last month, the Grammy Awards announced Live from Across the Pond was nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album. It’s Cray’s 14th nomination. Recorded over seven nights in May 2005, at the Royal Albert Hall in London while on tour with Eric Clapton, the album finds the band in tight formation and Cray’s vocals convincingly sincere. His familiar, clean “Fender Strat sound” and peppery rhythm guitar grooves propel most of the collection with dynamic grooves from his solid backing band — drummer Kevin Hayes, organist/pianist Jim Pugh, and bassist Karl Sevareid. On the mic between songs, Cray’s endlessly gracious and polite to his audience.
Highlights include the hot boogie of “Phone Booth,” the reggae rhythms and accents of “Poor Johnny,” the 4/4 funk of “Right Next Door,” and the straightahead pop/rocker “Bad Influence” — which bears the closest resemblance to the Stones/Clapton style of his biggest radio hit (“Smoking Gun” isn’t even included in the new collection).
“When you’re put into the situation, you rise to the occasion,” says Cray. “You get opportunities. Playing with someone like Eric Clapton on stage is a big deal to me! When he looks over and signals you to take a solo, if it’s in you, you just do your thing and remember to play for the song. I find myself in these situations and more than half the time, it comes out alright [laughs].”
Cray and his band plan to perform much of the material featured on the new live disc with a few surprises here and there pulled from his vast repertoire.
“We don’t use a set list,” he says of the current shows. “We’ve just been calling songs off the top of our heads and playing off of one another. When you feel happy on stage, the audience can pick up on that.”