Mascot [Release date 04.09.15]
In an age where volume, speed and showmanship dominate, Robert Cray is here to remind us of the value of heartfelt lyrics, a resonant tone and a soulful singer’s ability to explore every nuance of the blues.
He is one of the few blues artists who has managed to cross over to the rock market, all the more remarkable given he’s as a subtle guitarist and soulful vocalist who often pens reflective, first person narratives about fractured relationships.
In that respect middle age suits him well. He’s never been a demonstrative guitar player in search of the great gesture. On the contrary, his art draws you into the intrinsic relationship between guitar, pen and vocals.
The unimaginatively titled ‘4 Nights of 40 Years Live’ is a double live CD and DVD, featuring footage from 4 different shows with his current band, including the award winning producer Steve Jordan who doubles on percussion and drums. The bonus CD includes archive footage from the 1982 San Francisco Blues Festival and a 1987 appearance on the Dutch TV.
The DVD provides the context for a career retrospective which includes ringing endorsements from the likes Clapton, Guy, Jordan, Richard, Jimmie Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt.
The DVD doesn’t really offer any real insight into Cray the person, save for the fact that deep into the film he reveals his chronic shyness, as he recalls that bass player Richard Cousins used to handle the intro’s.
He’s at his best when eloquently exploring a melodic sensibility with a B.B. King touch, punctuated by a clean Albert Collins style tone and a sultry vibrato that evokes Otis Rush.
His conversational playing style sometimes draws you into a song and other times emphasises a feel. As a result his solos vary from the deeply emotional to the fiery, though as with most of Cray’s songs the spark is built by degrees.
The double album also showcases a stylistic diversity that has enabled him to use the blues as a springboard for commercial ends. He digs deep with his current band to uncover the soulful blues of ‘Poor Johnny’, explores the sonorous blues of ‘I’ll Always Remember You’ – complete with smoky vocals, horn solos and some edgy guitar – and he brings his DNA to bear on ‘Right Next Door (Because of Me)’ on a fine example of his craft.
He’s also a magnificent interpretive singer on the Hayes/Porter classic ‘Your Good Thing Is About To End’ and there’s a quiet dignity to his playing on ‘Won’t Be Coming Home’.
The latter is a track from his current ‘In My Soul’ album which shows the consistency of his song writing has never wavered. His emotive phrasing and lyrical pull is stretched over the kind of timeless funky groove that originally brought him into the spotlight.
He clearly enjoys swapping verses with Kim Wilson (sans harp) on ‘Wrap It Up’, another Hayes/Porter composition and a Fab T Birds favourite, and adds a sinuous attack on Willie Mitchell’s ‘Love Gone To Waste.’
His melodic subtlety bubbles up on the soul-blues ‘Bad Influence’, a song Sam Cooke would have been proud of. As Eric Clapton says in the DVD, “It’s the composition and the singer.”
He pushes his vocals on the second verse of ‘These Things’ to sound like Joe Louis Walker before adding an angular solo of controlled fervour.
The bonus CD shows just what all the fuss was about when Cray first made his name on the North West Coast. The band leans into ‘I Guess I Showed Her’ as Robert almost imperceptibly takes things up a notch.
The younger Cray kicks ass on ‘T Bone-Shuffle’ and overcomes a slight vocal tremor on the otherwise cruise control version of ‘Smoking Gun’. He switches to R&B mode on the jazzy ‘Too Many Cooks’ which is full of Hammond and horns, and the adrenalin is really pumping on ‘T-Bone Shuffle’, which he tackles as if born to play the blues.
The DVD further suggests Cray is essentially a team player who reveals very little on camera, but pours everything into his songs.
Buddy Guy tells us: “Robert Cray shell shocked me”, and the DVD features enough exciting early footage to show just why he was regarded as the future of the blues.
They say successful artists go through a cycle of self exploration before becoming a master of their craft. On the evidence of this album Cray has successfully navigated that career span.
He’s sometimes accused of being too laid back or not bluesy enough, but ‘4 Nights of 40 Years Live’ renders those observations irrelevant. The album shines its light on some of the best blues song written in the last 40 years and performed by one of the great soul blues singer of his generation. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00
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