Published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
October 2, 2019
By Joshua Miner
A young Robert Cray watched in fascination as legends like Muddy Waters made blues music an integral part of American culture – tapping into the human experience in ways that had never done before. By age 20, Cray was ready to carve out his own place in blues history. With his exploratory guitar rhythms and smooth lyrics, he soon did just that – making a name for himself throughout the Pacific Northwest blues scene by the late ‘70s. Five Grammy awards and over 20 albums later, Cray’s musical legacy shows no signs of slowing down.
Cray has collaborated with a long list of artists over the years, including Eric Clapton, BB King, John Lee Hooker and the Rolling Stones. It was the Stones’ Keith Richards in 1987 who requested Cray take part in the Steve Jordan-produced movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, a tribute to rock legend Chuck Berry. In the film, Cray is featured alongside Berry in a performance of Brown Eyed Handsome Man. Jordan would later go on to produce several of his albums in the years to come, including Cray’s Grammy-winning record Take Your Shoes Off in 1999.
Fresh off recording his first album since 2017’s collaboration Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm, Cray and his quartet are ready for the real magic to begin as they explore their new music for legions of eager blues fans nationwide.
The album is being kept under tight wraps, he says, but he can announce that he plans to release it this fall. As for writing and recording it, the process has remained mostly the same for the group.
“We just went in and had a good time,” Cray explains of the easy-going sessions.
The album features several originals as well as a few reimagined covers. Recorded at Hollywood’s historic Capitol Studios with Jordan, Cray says some of songs will feature backing from a lively horn section.
Although fans have a few months before digging into the new tracks, his last album has continued to remain relevant over the past two years. On Just How Low, the Blues Hall-of-Famer voiced his bewilderment at President Donald Trump’s toxic behavior. Asking if there is anything that Trump wouldn’t do, Cray says the song is even more topical in light of the current impeachment inquiry.
One of the few tracks the band plays every night, Cray points out they have to change the lyrics daily thanks to the never-ending parade of political scandals embroiling the current administration.
While he is unabashedly outspoken with some songs, he stresses that his performances are all about connecting and sharing an experience with the audience. Cray says the blues are the perfect vessel for all walks of life to relate to one another, as the stories they tell are universal.
His lineup has continued to shift over the years, but in recent years has solidified into a foursome. The quintet features Richard Cousins on bass, Terence F. Clark on drums and vocals and Dover Weinberg on keyboards.
Cray’s guitar skills are front and center, but he says the musical responsibilities are evenly split between all four of them.
“We all play together; every person’s part is just as important.”
Taking part in Clapton’s Crossroads festival this September, Cray was thrilled to be surrounded by a host of familiar blues legends including Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, Los Lobos, Gary Clark Jr., Peter Frampton, and Bonnie Raitt. Also in attendance were actors Johnny Depp and Bill Murray. Cray jokes that the performers have dubbed it “Guitarmageddon” amongst themselves – as a who’s who of blues rockers descend on Los Angeles to share their mutual respect for blues and each other each year.
“It’s a love fest,” he says with affection.
With Cray’s musical inspiration continuing to flow throughout his long and storied career, he says the key to such longevity is simple.
“As you go on, you learn how to get out of your own way,” he explains.
This flow is something he looks to tap into at every electrifying performance he gives. He says it’s essential to remain open to the ever-changing musical conversation of the band – as well as the energy the crowd brings each night. Because of the unpredictability nature of his shows, he avoids predetermined setlists. When the notion strikes them, the band is ready to dust off any one of the countless tunes in Cray’s songbook.
Not only are the setlists constantly shifting, but Cray refuses to play a solo like it sounds on his records. These spaces, he says, are meant for exploring and covering new musical ground. Avoiding these routines is what has truly allowed his music to remain fresh and exciting all these years. Not only is the important for fans, he says, but for any successful musician as well.
The reward for pushing the envelope and living in each moment is the opportunity to feel the reactions of the audience as he plays. By taking these chances, he gives the crowd something both he and the fans have never heard before.
“You get to see when you’re doing something well,” Cray says.
Playing the blues means telling a story, he says. And while that traditionally means a sad story, Cray’s music allows the listener to transcend their own blues – finding solace and fellowship in each emotional chord. By exploring these stories with the audience, the Robert Cray Band creates something brand-new each night – and everyone leaves their own blues behind for a while.
“That’s what it’s all about.”
The Robert Cray Band will be performing at the Strand Center Theatre on Tuesday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45-75 in advance, or $50-80 the day of the show and can be purchased at strandcenter.org or by calling the box office at 518 563-1604 (ext. 105).