When Robert Cray talks about his guitar playing style he describes it as a conversation between him and the listener. Until I witnessed him playing live tonight I didn’t quite appreciate what he meant by that statement. Robert’s guitar solos are animated and punctuated by the expressions on his face – every note, every arpeggio, every thwack on his Strat’s strings is clearly seen and emulated on the lines of the face of this master Blues man. Although The Robert Cray Band cannot just be seen as a purveyor of blues music: their music and sound it much more complex than that.
I first heard Robert Cray in about 1986 and tried and failed to play along with his ‘Strong Persuader’ album in my bedroom. As much as I loved his ‘Midnight Stroll’ album a few years later, I didn’t keep up the relationship and we parted company for 25 years. Tonight I wondered whether he is still as good as I remember and whether anything would rekindle my interest. By way of an answer I will just say I spent the day after the gig buying the albums I missed between 1990 and now. Why did I ever let you go Bob?
Robert Cray’s albums often include in the arrangements horn sections, backing vocals and guitars to supplement the core of the band, which is generally bass, drums, organ and Robert on guitar and voice. This tour is stripped back to just the four piece. Any thoughts about the sound being muted without the Memphis Horns are quickly dismissed as it is obvious that Cray’s songs are absolutely perfectly arranged for these four musicians. The space left by missing brass for instance is amply filled by Robert’s soaring voice and fiercely played rhythm guitar.
Throughout the entire set I cannot believe that Robert Cray is 63 years old, his energy, drive and conviction seem undiluted by 40 years in the business. He looks and sounds like his career has only just started. Listening to his albums from over twenty years ago on the way to the gig, I never imagined he would be able to reach the notes he did then, but when he plays “These Things” tonight, I am waiting for those high notes in the last verse (listen at 3:24 on the recorded version), and I imagine that he will have to drop an octave to accommodate them, but not only does he get up there, he smashes it by singing at that register instead of just screaming “Waaaahh,” like on the album. Incredible technique and skill. The guitar solo also in that track is beyond belief as he incorporates many styles in just a few minutes, from strummed chords to lightening fast runs to beautifully held and bent notes, with exquisite vibrato straight out of B B’s lessons in blues.
But Cray’s influences do not determine his style: he has a unique way of playing and somehow this is only experienced in all its glory, live. Some artists work better in a studio, and Robert Cray has some fine examples of this, but on stage his genius is unleashed and only truly captured there.
The band skips through a 40 year career almost without talking a breath, and as I said at the start, the songs I didn’t know from the many albums I had missed, sound as good if not better than the ones I did. And the ones I did: “Right Next Door”, “Nothin’ But A Woman”, “The Forecast (Calls For Pain)”, “These Things”, “Blues Get Off My Shoulder”, “Great Big Old House” sound sparklingly fresh with the stripped back arrangements.
Robert’s band compliments him perfectly; Les Faulkner on drums, Richard Cousins plays bass whilst busting some groovy moves, and Dover Weinberg is on Hammond organ and keyboards. They allow the star so much room for his guitar and voice, and Mr Cray uses every frequency at his disposal: both with his instrument and his vocal. Somehow his singing range has increased with age and he sings lower than ever and then gets right up into a falsetto with seemingly no effort. His guitar solos similarly leap from high up on the fretboard, to the low E in nanoseconds; all with his unmistakable tone using the Fender Strat’s ‘out of phase’ selected pick ups (* see below). The way Robert whacks the guitar strings so hard with his plectrum is unique to him and is often described as a quacking sound – it is pretty accurate and for the most part, his solos sound beautifully like an angry duck falling down a flight of stairs.
The set list seems to change nightly, so you never know what you’ll get, which is refreshing in this day of over rehearsed bands, but highlights tonight are, well… everything! Special mention however for the reggae tinged “Poor Johnny”; the slowed down blues and laid back rhythms of “Time Makes Two”; and the bouncy “Chicken In the Kitchen”.
Robert Cray is good guy. I don’t know him, but I bet he is a great man to be around. His friendly and warm stage persona seems unaffected and real, and when he jokes that he and his band have been waiting back stage for the audience to come and see him since their last gig over a year ago, you can almost believe he is that committed to pleasing his fans, and humble enough to just wait for them to return. How he stays so humble, when he is clearly one of the best guitarists around now, is one of the reasons the remainder of this UK tour is a must see. I for one, will be waiting at the Town Hall night and day until he comes back.
( * referring to the Stratocaster’s in-between pickup switch settings as “out of phase” is, I know, technically incorrect, however, I have used that here to not have to explain the intricacies of the instrument… which I have had to now anyway, but at least it is down here and only for guitar nerds like me to stoke our chins at.)
Review: Alan Neilson
Photograph – PR – credit James L Bass