Robert Kane reviews blues guitar legend, Robert Cray’s show at CQAF

I Pity The Fool…

Each of us strive to be recognised in our field. Perhaps this is a basic human desire to be congratulated for a tough job well done. Imagine how you might feel if after 37 years of hard grind you are still referred to as the “The Young Pretender,” or simply a pretender.

This has happened to Robert Cray, a musician who has worked with blues and rock legends, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards and Sly and the Family Stone to name but a few.

The five time Grammy Award winner, and Blues Music Hall of Fame inductee, has split fans of the blues for years, some saying his music was too soft, that he was too modest or coy, others suggest that Cray was too “pop”.

However a brief trip through the multitude of YouTube videos displaying his work suggests that by any measure, Cray can hold his own on stage with any musician, whether that be playing with blues legend Albert Collins or Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

There is plenty of evidence of Cray playing alongside contemporaries, not as a lesser musician but as an equal. Cray played the Alpine Festival the night Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter accident and whatever subsequent elevations, at that time many suggest they were considered in parallel.

Parallels

With regards parallels, there seems to me a form of race based pigeon holing which has been maintained by the music industry over many years

In the 1930’s there was no clear difference between the “Blues” or “Country” musicians apart from their skin colour. Often musicians were playing a similar repertoire but the music industry wanted to sell “black” music to black people and “white” music to white people. Musicians would be hemmed into a genre and had to stick with it if they wanted any kind of career.

In the 1980’s at the height of their careers, Stevie Ray Vaughn, would more often than not be designated as rock or blues rock, and Cray described as blues (and often within that genre criticised for being more pop than grit), this despite the fact that Stevie Ray Vaughn played well beyond the confines of rock music and had a subtle interpretation of the blues in his repertoire, and Cray strayed across many boundaries with his unique capacities as a guitar player, and despite being considered a more nuanced musician could deliver howling rock solos when required.

Stylings

If we look at Cray’s background, his influences, the questions he asked himself regarding his musical orientation, we can easily see that to reduce his playing simply by way of his racial background is to reduce any possibility of understanding his achievements.

 Robert Cray cut his teeth listening to his mother’s Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke records, both artists offering a crooning element to the vocal, and a commercial appeal, which could be argued crept in as a key part of Cray’s approach.

The softer stylings of Cray’s guitar can be attributed to the question that shadows many contemporary rock or blues musicians, and a question we know he asked of himself, “Are you a Beatles, or a Stones fan?”

In interviews Cray would say that initially he preferred The Beatles due to their inclusion of a cover (Kansas City) from Blues legend, Howlin’ Wolf, on an American television show called Shindig!

He watched the show while living in Berlin with his family, his father, an army officer, was stationed there. This is around the time he got his first guitar and so the Beatles were undoubtedly part of the evolution of Cray’s style.

It’s hardly surprising that the Fab Four had this effect on Cray; both they and the Rolling Stones were championing the recognition of the pioneers of Blues, the very people who had influenced them, at this time.

And much like either band, when asked about his orientation musically, Cray has said tellingly, “I never wanted to just redo old blues songs, there are so many influences over what I do.”

Technique

When looked at closely, Cray’s technique drew elements from an early orientation of the blues, concentrated mainly on minor 7th chordal structures. Once modern technology was added, and the boogie element reduced, he set about balancing between the musical legacy that had been left to him by the blues pioneers and advancing towards frontiers that had yet to be entered by “blues” musicians.

Blues purists hated it, calling him heretical, though it could be argued in his defence that by the time Cray emerged, there were so many sub-genres of the blues that it was nearly impossible to state categorically what pure blues was at that point. Blues was no longer the preserve of the “juke joints” set up after the emancipation of the slaves, or even the music of black Americans exclusively.

It is definitely true that, generally, Cray’s music is softer than what many people would traditionally associate with the blues. He has never hidden the fact that he wanted to affect a mass market, something that is clearly seen through the many high quality music videos that accompany his work, and the span of genres through much of his work.

Pretender

While the question of being called a pretender works in some ways to denigrate Cray’s contribution, he has embraced the moniker to some extent.

He may write about love affairs, love gone wrong, yet he has a stable home life having been married for 25 years. The songs about sexual longing and infidelity are delivered by a stage persona, and it is that persona the audience in Belfast will witness at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

He’s a strong persuader…

The firefly lights surrounding the festival marquee’s roof were mirrored in the reflective skin on the bass drum, a shag pile carpet set up by a bass amp, and an impossibly large Hammond organ, greeted the band upon their arrival.

I felt immediately that my expectations would be met. Yes, there would be killer riffs and stellar guitar playing, but this would be spoiled by the overly chorused guitar predominant through Cray’s studio work. I had forgotten how much studio engineers and producers had had a hand in creating albums.

Cray doesn’t say much; he lets the music do the talking. It’s not until they finish the opening number, a cover of The Same Love That Made Me Laugh, that he addresses the crowd recounting the last time he was in Belfast (1986 Grand Opera House), introduces Phone Booth as the next track, joking about how much time has passed, the song was, “a new release when we played it last time…”

None of the Stevie Ray Vaughan/Mark Knopfler guitar influence is in evidence. Cray rips as much sustain from his signature Stratocaster as he can (he’s heavy handed, something he attributes to watching Albert Collins play when the Robert Cray Band would perform support for Collins), despite that, there’s a beautiful warmth in the tone coming from his valve state amplifier.

Using guitar strings of varying thickness rather than a standard pack of strings, like Eddie Cochran did all those years ago, his two signature strats compliment his amplifiers perfectly and the sound at times is a rampant chimera.

Funk

When Poor Johnny hits in I can immediately tell why the purists rail against Cray; there’s a mixture of Reggae and Funk within his blues progressions, added to in kind by Dover “Whitecliffs” Weinberg on keyboards.

I feel this is what it would be like if 10CC met with Robert Randolph and The Family Band (another cross genre band that Cray has had the opportunity to share a stage with through their mutual friend Eric Clapton).

Drummer Terrance Clark, looks like the world’s happiest man in his dashiki as he picks up his brushes to drum to I Pity The Fool. I am in awe by how well the sound is managed, a beautiful clarity even with brushes in a fully amplified gig. This approach to musical direction allows the dynamics to permeate through the venue.

“You alright? Just checkin’!” the dialogue is kept short, ensuring perhaps that the onstage persona is never broken throughout the show. Regardless of the persona, there is raw emotion in evidence here and tracks that have been played live for many years appear still to be delivered with enthusiasm and dynamism.

I glance at Richard Cousins with his impressive peppered dreadlocks bouncing up and down on the shag pile carpet barefoot, making sure his bass is holding its own alongside Cray and Weinberg.

Album

An announcement is made regarding the new album being released, and for tonight only there will be a pre-sale. Ever the cynic, I ask myself how many “For one night only” pre-sales Robert Cray has had during this tour.

Don’t You Even Care? is introduced. Cray, still in his persona, asks the audience, “Don’t you even care?” as if we had caused the personal slight that has fueled the song. I wonder for a moment if the band are used to a more raucous audience. The song itself harks back to Cray’s work with John Lee Hooker, the influence is very present. The whole song screams subtlety, while Robert Cray’s guitar subtly screams.

The song that a majority of the audience has been waiting for appears, Right Next Door (Because of Me), and brings an unexpected quiet to the audience. Cray plays on the dynamic of a hushed audience, and using his volume to hold everyone’s attention, he rolls it down, further and further while bending the strings. The entire marquee is in silence until the last note fades and the applause erupts.

There is a lovely familiarity between the members of the band, the musicians seemed relaxed and happy to be a part of the performance. They play two encores. Cray has said himself that he doesn’t mind a boogie as a second to last track, but would prefer to have a true blues tune as a closer. It seemed at the time a little counterintuitive, does it serve to create a lasting impression on the crowd? Keep them thinking after the show?

Don’t You Even Care? Your Good Thing Is About To End…

The blues in general is far too powerful to be pigeonholed as esoteric, with the call and response of African Traditional Music, the pentatonics of, Irish, and European folk music, and drumming techniques that have been attributed to the Pow Wow drumming of Native American culture, the blues has been a narrative of pain and struggle.

This music seems, given its trace elements, like it would have universal appeal, yet in Belfast at least, the audience for Cray is an older demographic and so young faces are few and far between.

It may be that the blues appears old fashioned. Cray has stated that the contemporary blues circuit is populated by the same names playing the same gigs in the same states. It’s a worrying thought, that perhaps this genre has stagnated, despite the efforts of musicians like Cray trying to redevelop the genre.

I definitely agree with Cray that music of whatever genre needs to evolve, and that we shouldn’t seek to re-create the same things over, and over again, or there will never be anything new. But there is an underlying thematic orientation regarding the blues; that of sadness, oppression, and racism which is not always completely evident in Cray’s work.

However, he did the album Nothin’ But Love as a stand against George W. Bush. Even a commercially savvy musician like Cray could utilise the Blues as a powerful vehicle for expression.

Turmoil

So with a world in turmoil, in the US, a racist misogynist occupying the White House, the Black Lives Matter movement taking on the question of racism with the police, and locally at the moment we have no say over who governs us, and when we are governed we face appalling corruption and savage cuts to our public services, all of which would suggest a place for “the blues”.

And that would mean a place still for Cray who plays killer concerts, whose approach is to develop the genre musically, while still aiming to maintain a connection to its roots.

Robert Cray has a new album out – it was released on the 28th April, 2017 and it is called “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm”

Set List

The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
The Phone Booth
Poor Johnny
I pity the Fool
Sitting on Top of The World
(Won’t Be) Coming Home
I Shiver
Fix This
You Must Believe in Yourself
Don’t You Even Care?
Your Good Thing is About to End
On The Road Down
You Move Me
Right Next Door (Because of Me)
The Forecast (Calls for Pain)
Change of Heart, Change of Mind
Hip Tight Onions In My Soul
Time Makes Two

Robert Kane is a Belfast based actor, and founding member of the rhythm and blues band “Mudblind.” You can follow him on twitter

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