Gig review: THE ROBERT CRAY BAND – Barbican Hall, London, 6 May 2014

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND – Barbican Hall, London, 6 May 2014

Plush, refined surroundings for this gig and it was a big step up for support act Azadeh. This was a home town gig for the singer/songwriter and she looked and sounded genuinely pleased to be there. She held the stage well and showed off her strong, characterful voice to good effect.

There was a big crowd in early doors who received Azadeh enthusiastically. The vibe is a little folksy, a little bluesy and with a hint of edge, especially when accompanied by electric guitar. The material isn’t yet that strong, but these are early days and there is lots of potential.

The Robert Cray Band are at the other end of the spectrum. This tour was in support of Cray’s 17th studio album ‘In My Soul’ and the master blues-soul man is now pushing 60. His live reputation is arguably more consistent than his studio output and relaxed confidence exuded through every note, move, and utterance of this gig.

Everything about the set shouted craft and class. From the low key way in which the band ambled on stage, to the informal banter with the audience, right through to closing the set unusually with an instrumental, the Booker T-inspired ‘Hip Tight Onions’. A man and a band in control.

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND – Barbican Hall, London, 6 May 2014

Even the stage was a statement. Stripped down to the minimum, the band clustered in the middle of the floor around the drum riser with a couple of Matchbox amps for company under a conservative lighting rig. The only augmentation on show was a bunch of plastic red peonies stuffed in the top of bassist Richard Cousins’ cabinet.

The highlights came early and stayed late. Second track in, Cray shared the limelight with Dover Weinberg who contributed a sumptuous Hammond B3 solo to ‘Two Steps From The End’. That retro, stripped down feel again: no robot MIDIs or autopilot sequencers to clutter the sound. And no brass either – usually to be found on Cray’s studio output – which gave these gorgeous tracks room to breathe.

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND – Barbican Hall, London, 6 May 2014

‘Poor Johnny’ was spine tingling, Cray wringing out the emotion in a high register, and ‘(Won’t Be) Coming Home’ was full of characteristic chops and signature jazz-funk influences. ‘What Would You Say’, from the new album was introduced by Cray as “a song of hope”, and was simply beautiful.

During ‘Right Next Door (Because Of Me)’, he takes things so far down with some spare, soft plucks of the strings, that it was as if the punters were collectively holding their breath, teetering on the very edges of their seats. And then up tempo for the Otis Redding cover ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ where Cray traded lines with drummer Les Falconer over an insistent guitar verse.

Famously, Cray does not use a set list. The skill of the song selection tonight was an extraordinarily instinctive judgement of pace and mood. This was evident in the way he called over the guitar roadie for his sunburst Strat, but mid-swap, decided to hang on to his silver axe instead and played a different track.

The showstoppers were a ballsy ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ with some scintillating lead playing, which slammed straight into the vibrant and gutsy ‘Chicken In The Kitchen’.

Falconer came into his own during these tracks.  Jiving and pivoting behind the kit, his oversize white-tipped sticks flayed the tubs without mercy. In one break, he rocked back on his stool, snaked out a right arm and belted his 10’ crash with more accuracy, pace and feeling than a George Foreman piledriver.

THE ROBERT CRAY BAND – Barbican Hall, London, 6 May 2014

By contrast, barefoot bassist Richard Cousins stayed welded to the sound. When he was playing he did not take his eyes off the rest of the band for a split-second. Tighter than a rizla.

A vibrant ‘The Forecast (Calls For Pain)’ closed the set proper and a sharp two-song encore sent the crowd into overdrive. Cray was sincere and modest in thanking everyone for coming out, whilst waves of jaw-dropped respect and breathless admiration followed the band offstage. A sublime show of quality and excellence by a bluesman at the top of his game.

Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Jim Templeton-Cross

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