Once upon a time Robert Cray was the future of the blues, but tonight he’s cast in the role of a remarkably young looking veteran of the genre. Outside of Buddy Guy he’s almost the last man standing and tonight’s Barbican performance give you a clue as to why.
His soul blues sometimes evokes Sam Cooke and Bobby Blue Bland, while his tight, sinewy guitar playing has elements of Albert Collins and his clipped tone could be Jimmy Vaughan. His solos sound conversational and extend the emotion and feel of a song.
His songs carry timeless blues narratives with a universal message, voiced in a warm, close to the mic style. His pristine diction draws the listener into a set full of soulful, retro R&B arrangements full of confessionals, love songs, laments and every shade of the blues. He embeds them in a series of enveloping deep grooves and occasional contrasting funky workouts.
Its classy stuff, though he gives his audience no concessions in terms of the dynamics of his set list which is pregnant with mid-paced ballads.
Back in the mid ‘80’s we all assumed that the younger Cray was always playing within himself – a cool blues icon in the making who didn’t wish to be overstate his immense abilities. Yet the intervening years have taught us that he’s basically a very introverted guy on stage.
His band are tightly compressed in the middle of the stage, manfully doing their job, and the collective studious pose is only broken by Richard Cousins’s jocular changes of bass and Cray’s occasional shuffles stage right, to change his own axe.
No matter, tonight is all about the 40 year career of a soulful, feel guitar player and blues narrator who appears to be on a mission to be share his pain with an audience that hangs on to every word.
His catchphrase for the night is: ‘Thank you so much, like this’, which he repeats robotically to the point of parody when introducing his songs.
But what songs they are. It’s not just the fact he’s pouring out his soul to you in his rich timbre, it’s also the way he phrases, his use of space and time and even the way bass player Richard Cousins locks into the chord progressions with his gently pulsing lines to nuance Cray’s lyrical feel.
The band starts in the darkness and plays a perfunctory instrumental introduction over the background music. They pause, stop and then head into a cover of Otis Redding’s ‘Your Good Thing (Is About To End)’.
The Memphis funk of ‘Guess I’ll Never Know’ picks up the pace, as Robert solos eloquently. The slow building and intimately voiced ‘You’re Everything’ is a real barometer of the mood of the evening with the emphasis on overly deliberate phrasing, edgy incisive notes and lots of space.
In comparison ‘Chicken In The House’ sounds almost lightweight until a tremulous solo takes it to another level. Robert rises again on a supreme, funky ‘Bad Influence’ and he’s back in soulful mood on ‘The Things You Do For Me’, on which keyboard player Dover Weinberg’s delicate tones and Robert’s shimmering notes impressively fill the absent horn parts.
‘I Shiver’ percolates in true Cray style as his vocals drench the song in meditative heartfelt phrasing, while ‘Right Next Door (Because of Me)’ is a honey dripping soul-blues highlight, underpinned by Les Falconer’s crisp percussion.
The set moves authoritatively towards the funky climactic groove of ‘You Move Me’, which is the closest the band gets to stretching out.
The encores are in sharp contrast to what’s gone before. The Booker T style instrumental ‘Hip Tight Onions’ is a welcome uplifting funky instrumental and the big sounding ‘Time Makes Two’ provides a belated energetic finish to a sedate, absorbing and always beguiling show.
Earlier in the evening Californian bluesy troubadour Shawn Jones wraps his husky vocals round some impressive guitar playing to evoke the younger Terry Reid. He receives a good reception for fine set climaxed by the slide-led ‘Running Water’. An up and coming talent on a classy bill of fare.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Mark Hughes at MHP Studios
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