Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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The Robert Cray Band: Birmingham Town Hall 5/5/14

Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley
Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Robert Cray May 2014. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Azadeh, supporting Robert Cray @ B'hm Town hall. Photo copyright: Simon Redley

Five time Grammy winner and 15 time nominee Robert Cray, who has sold maybe 20 million records, kicked off his 13 date 40th anniversary European Tour in Basingstoke on May 2nd. After a stop off for a daylight performance at Cheltenham’s annual jazz festival, it was back on the road to roll into Birmingham for a Town Hall gig.

Robert has his childhood friend Richard Cousins alongside him on bass, Hammond and keyboard player Dover Weinberg and drummer Les Falconer in his corner too. Promoting his excellent new record on the Provogue label, “In My Soul,” which dropped just over a month ago.

The band played six of the 11 tracks from the album at the Birmingham show, apparently changing the set list show by show and deciding on what they are going to play each night just minutes before curtain up. The new CD, his 17th studio album and one of the best of his lengthy career, digs deep into Cray’s soul roots with a distinctive Stax, Chess and perhaps Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records influenced sound. The 15-song set list for the third date on their UK tour gave the close to sell-out crowd, everything they wanted to hear, apart from notable missing in action track, “Smoking Gun.” Perhaps his best known tune. I have seen him maybe a dozen times since the early 80s and I think this is the first time that song has been absent. But we did get the classic “Right Next Door,” four songs in and a cracking version too.

His vocal chops are sounding as strong as back in the day, and considering he’s been out there for 40 years doing his thing, and always puts 110% emotion and passion into his singing and his playing on every performance, that is a result. His playing is still spine tingling, and like BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a handful of other legendary guitarists, when he plays, you know it is him. That cutting tone, those sweet soul licks, that biting attack. It’s all there and all intact. No smoke, no mirrors, no dancing girls, no fireworks, (well only in the music,) a plain black backdrop, a couple of pretty lights shone on top. Crystal clear sound, albeit the levels dipped up and down a few times and it got bloody loud now and again, the Robert Cray Band needs no gimmicks. It is all about the music, four guys who have got it nailed and above all else; the feel. You don’t just listen, you lose yourself in the moment when he sings and when he plays.

The chemistry between Robert and bassist Richard Cousins’ playing is quite something. Like they are joined by an invisible umbilical cord, with twins’ telepathic skills. I was zoning in on the bottom end all night and was knocked out by Richard’s less is more approach. It locks in with Cray’s guitar and is never busy or rambunctious. It’s always bang on. Les Falconer did a great job tonight too on drums. New boy Dover was grinning like a Cheshire cat most of the 90 minute set, and providing some very pleasing B3 and piano thrills.

The star of the show for me tonight was Robert Cray’s pipes. That frigging amazing voice. If he put down the guitar and just sang, I doubt many of us would complain. His is a sweet soul marvel, a gift. The last time I saw him live about three years ago, I detected a slight gruffness and a less smooth vocal tone in parts, but tonight that sweet tone was back. Maybe because this was at the front end of a tour. But tonight his voice sent shivers song after song. His phrasing so innate and natural. It gets better and he knows how to write or choose material that gives him a perfect vehicle for that voice to shine. He’s one of those rare cats that sound just as good and sometimes better than he does on record. Often it’s the other way round; you get the record, it’s fab and then you go see that act live and come away moaning: “Sounds nowt like the record, live.” Not tonight folks.

Before I go further about the gig tonight, a word of praise for the support act, solo singer-songwriter Azadeh. Worth checking out. But tonight is about one man and his band………..They come on stage with the lights dark, and a deep American voice warns us to switch off the flash on our cameras and enjoy the show. Then Robert and his band start playing, in the dark, and the announcer goes into excited boxing MC mode and we get: Ladeez and Gentlemen, Mr. Robert Craaaaaaayyyyyyyy………”

The lights go up, the crowd applaud, myself and two other photographers grab our shots (Robert only allows pix in the first song), and we are off. Wooden Hammond organ and keyboards stage left, Robert at mike stand in the middle, a row of plectrums taped to his mike stand, a gleaming silver Start style guitar strapped to his chest. Wearing a baggy white shirt outside a pair of black trousers and his trade-mark sandals - no socks, of course. He likes to be comfortable does our Robert. Drummer on a riser behind Robert, centre stage. Richard Cousins with his side to the audience, looking at RC by his side on stage right. His flowing dreadlocks swaying as he gently moves from side to side feeling the groove from his giant Ampeg bass rig during the set.

They kick off with “Won’t Be Coming Home,” from the 2012 album “Nothin But Love,” and then “Poor Johnny,” from 2008’s “Twenty,” tonight with long delay effects at the end of this song, where Robert’s riffs come back at him and he overlays with another set of phrasing. Really effective. Another taken from the 21012 release is “I’ll Always Remember You,” and he is in fine voice. “Right Next Door,” from the hit 1991 album “Strong Persuader,” sounds superb on the Sunburst Strat' he changes to, and there’s a neat trick at the end of the song when he and the band fade themselves out, like on a record. Each instrument dropping in volume, both in their playing and from the FOH sound desk, until the guitar is dropped out of the PA speakers and all you can hear is Robert’s Matchless amps on stage and through his monitor cabinets. For me, the inventive bass line on the original record from Richard makes this track, and tonight it is exactly as on the record. It has a saucy lyric about an affair with a neighbour’s wife. Not auto-biographical by the way, as RC is happily married to a British girl, Sue Turner-Cray who was a model he met in LA. I shot pix at their wedding, in fact.

He introduces us to his comrades, Cousins (best man at his wedding) getting the loudest applause, before swapping back to the silver guitar for the 2008 track “It Doesn’t Show.” We wait until song six for anything from the new album, and it starts with the opening track, “You Move Me,” which gets respectful applause in the opening bars, before the superb soul tune “Fine Yesterday,” also a new one. His vocal phrasing on the 1993 cut from “Don’t Be Afraid Of The dark,” the excellent “Don’t You Even care,” is awesome.
He gets the first applause of the night for a guitar solo on that song. A solo Richard laughs out loud at, as like me, he obviously recognised Robert’s playing was as free as a bird, and on another level to most guitarists. He loses himself completely in the songs, even though he has heard many of them thousands of times over the last four decades. He squeezes every last ounce of emotion out of the neck of the guitar and from his vocal. No going through the motions for the money here.

Back in the day, Robert was so nervous on stage his teeth could be heard chattering on the mike, so Richard Cousins did the song announcements. Today Robert cracks jokes and quietly/confidently chats to his guests between songs. Richard doesn’t have a mike on stage, and the only other vocal that can be heard is from Les Falconer who sings backing vocals. Richard spends the gig chewing gum, occasionally popping a new piece into his mouth. “Let’s make it funky,” Robert tells the crowd, before they launch into the excellent “In My Soul,” album track “I Guess I’ll Never Know,” with Les singing harmony backing vocals. After that song, Robert asks us: “Are you alright?” to which the answer from the few bank holiday Monday night punters who could be arsed to answer him, was a resounding, Yes. One chap near me yelled out, “Play some blues,” before getting a bollocking from a security chap, for leaving his flash on while taking a photo on his iphone.

The band dig deep into a James Brown groove, Robert takes to a boxer’s stance, legs apart, fists clenched and jigging from side to side with the infectious groove. He runs on the spot and asks if we wanna see him do the splits. Guitar dangling from his chest, he puts his arms out wide and asks: “Did you see it.?” Repeating that gag a second time, but refusing to do it a third time when someone shouts out, “Do it again, slower! So, that’s the cabaret spot out of the way, can we have some more great music please Robert? “Like this,” he says to the band as they launch into “I Shiver,” taken from the 1996 release, “Shame + A Sin,” which features some lovely brush strokes on piano and Hammond B3 from Dover. I love Jim Pugh’s playing from previous albums and previous tours, but Dover is a good find. An instrumental co-written by Robert and his pal of 45 years Richard Cousins, “Hip Tight Onions,” is a cheeky tribute to Booker T & The MGs, and their tracks “Hip Hug Her,” “Time Is Tight,” and “Green Onions,” of course. On the new album, Robert’s guitar is out of tune on this song and gets worse as the track proceeds. He told me that himself during a recent interview, but the producer thought it was a great performance and they left it on the record. Tonight his busy guitar tech had tuned the instrument before he handed it to RC. Richard and Robert deliver a Shadows style dance for the audience mid song on this one, which would be a tad difficult for the keyboard man and drummer to join in with!

“What Would You Say,” has some emotive lyrics about being nicer to each other and the planet, again a track taken from the current album, and where he replicated a sitar sound on guitar. The final song is “Forecast Calls For Pain,” from the 1993 album “Midnight Stroll,” which featured the Memphis Horns on the recording. Then the four join arms and take a bow to a standing ovation. They leave the stage to loud shouts for “more, more, more.” The set list offers two more songs as an encore, but not “Smoking Gun,” as I and other audience members I spoke to, expected and hoped for.

We get track 10 from the current album, “Deep In My Soul,” a staple in the set list of the late great soul and blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland,, and then “Blues Get Off My Shoulder,” a tune from the 2012 album. I personally didn’t think the finale had enough impact, and would have liked a couple of incendiary up-tempo numbers to be sent off into the driving rain to. I loved what I heard tonight, as did the rest of the crowd, especially his vocals. But I was a tad disappointed he didn’t do the best track on the record for me, “Your Good Thing’s About To End.” The Isaac Hayes/David Porter cover “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” first recorded by Motown’s Mable John in 1966 and then a hit single for Lou Rawls in 1969. Hearing Cray’s album version, it could have been written for him. We also do not get Otis Redding’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine,’ another standout on the album. Maybe he does them on another night?

But what we did get was sheer class, from a timeless artist who gets better with age, it seems. No one can have a bad word to say about this man and what he can do. Can they? A real quadruple "threat" as a guitarist and a singer to die for, a versatile craftsman songwriter and a performer who does it from the soul. Living legend is not far from the truth, in my view. Catch him before the 18th May across the UK.


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