starship trooper

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mickey thomas.

You would need to be a navigational scholar to successfully chart the various flight patterns Starship has followed through the years. But the real trick comes in understanding how the veteran rock and pop unit known for mid ‘80s hits like We Built This City, Sara and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (but with flight logs dating back decades) could have stayed strategically grounded for so long.

Admittedly, the band – still fronted by the towering pop/soul tenor of Mickey Thomas – has never given up touring. But there had been no new Starship recordings for nearly 25 years (since 1989’s Love Among the Cannibals, to be exact) until an album called Loveless Fascination surfaced in late 2013.

“I guess I started to wonder if there would be another Starship album, as well,” explained Thomas. “I started a few projects over the years, but nothing really panned out. I was never totally happy with them. Then the more time went by, the greater the expectation. I thought, ‘How am I ever going to do a Starship album that’s going to live up to what people are expecting?’ But then I just thought, ‘The heck with that.’ I hooked up with my friend Jeff Pilson (an alumnus of Foreigner and Dokken, who wrote eight of Loveless Fascination’s 10 songs) and went in the studio. I really wanted the album to have more of a ‘70s feel to it musically and vibe-wise than, say, an ‘80s or ‘90s feel.”

That meant revisiting Thomas’s very entrance to the band in 1979. At the time, it was known as Jefferson Starship, a ‘70s update of the psychedelic ‘60s troupe Jefferson Airplane that included many of the same members. Thomas, a Georgia native that scored a chart-topping hit Fooled Around and Fell in Love with the Elvin Bishop Group in 1976, was recruited after the departures of principal Jefferson Starship vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin. Thomas’ recorded debut with the band was released 35 years ago this fall as Freedom at Point Zero. Its lead single Jane became an immediate hit and established a harder arena rock sound than what was featured on more pop-oriented Jefferson Starship records like Red Octopus, Spitfire and Earth.

“It took me awhile to take the plunge and join Jefferson Starship,” Thomas said. “I had just left Elvin Bishop and was getting ready to pursue a solo career when I got a call from Jefferson Starship. I thought that was kind of odd because my musical background was so different than what my impression of Jefferson Starship music was like. But once I got to meet the guys and hang out, I realized they wanted to reinvent the band with a much harder edge. So we started jamming and I started applying my sort of gospel/R&B vocals on top of the harder rock that the band was all about. Then we came out of the gate with Jane, which set the tone pretty much for the new Jefferson Starship.

“But at the concerts, the fans were still like, ‘Where’s Grace? Where’s Marty? So it took us awhile. Actually, just about the time that I think we were getting people to accepting Jefferson Starship without Grace Slick in it, she came back and rejoined the band.”

Jefferson Airplane/Starship co-founder Paul Kantner left in 1984, taking the rights to the band’s name with him. Hence, the official change to Starship. But another makeover arrived with 1985’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla – namely, a consciously commercial pop sound designed for the times.

“By the time 1985 rolled around, we needed to again reinvent the band,” Thomas said. “We wanted to try a new way of producing and making records with a lot of songs that were really different stylistically. We knew if we achieved what we wanted to achieve, we were going get a lot of backlash because the idea was to have a real strong radio presence. Hit singles were what we were purposely trying to create with Knee Deep in the Hoopla. And it worked. But then came the whole thing about selling out and ‘Whatever happened to the idealism of the Jefferson Airplane?’

“Our whole idea was just to take the band in a fresh new direction. We didn’t look at it as selling out or copping out. It was just a fun experience.”

Starship featuring Mickey Thomas performs at 8:30 tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts, Newlin Hall at Centre College, 600 West Walnut in Danville. Tickets are $35, $46. Call (877) 448-7469 or (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

critic’s pick 245: bill frisell, ‘guitar in the space age’

frisell space ageAmong Bill Frisell’s many gifts as a guitarist is the ability to provide a vibrant new voice to the roots music of his youth. In the past, that has largely been defined through jazz standards and Americana classics. Last year’s electro-chamber adventure Big Sur opened the repertoire up to a wider stylistic array of West Coast inspirations. But on the fine new Guitar in the Space Age!, perhaps his most accessible record in 15 years, Frisell expands his source material to include the pop, surf, twang and rock sounds that caught his ear as a teenager.

But anyone thinking Guitar in the Space Age! is some retro-fitting exercise needs to strap in give and this recording a full length test flight. While he doesn’t take the melodic liberties here that he has with some of his Americana explorations (2009’s Disfarmer comes to mind), the guitarist does toy with the temperament, tone and tempo of the music to make the album’s 14 songs sound like a sonic mural that is best enjoyed as a single suite as opposed to a composite of single-tune snapshots.

The warmth and color of Turn! Turn! Turn!, for instance, sounds both familiar and inviting. Fashioned far more after the jangly Rickenbacker 12 string electric colors Roger McGuinn pioneered on The Byrds’ hit 1965 version than the Pete Seeger-penned original, the song’s lyricism is elongated to build suspense for the inevitable groove that carries the tune.

Half the fun, though, is the tune’s placement on Guitar in the Space Age! between the album-opening cover of the surf classic Pipeline (which churns along at a similarly relaxed pace until the hearty beat of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen erupts) and the wah-wah enhanced funk of the Junior Wells-popularized Messin’ With the Kid.

One of Frisell’s most trusted bandmates, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, maintains a consistently complimentary presence throughout the album, from the lazily luscious string harmonies provided on the Beach Boys classic Surfer Girl to the light, chiming interplay that propels The Shortest Day (one of only two Frisell originals on Guitar in the Space Age!). And hearing the two casually cut loose on Merle Travis’ grand Cannonball Rag is big fun.

Pinning down favorites here is mighty tough. On initial listens, the top picks are a tie between a loose, psychedelic take on The Kinks’ Tired of Waiting for You and an anthemic Telstar proudly rooted in groove. Both tunes signal that while Guitar in the Space Age! may work off of melodic designs from Frisell’s past, the very assured instrumental music that results is engineered for the future.

the dobro adventures of rob ickes

Rob_Ickes-1-high-res

rob ickes.

As one of the most celebrated bluegrass instrumentalists on the planet, Rob Ickes has spent 2014 cultivating three recordings that reflect not only his skills on the wiry, wily resonator guitar known as the dobro but a set of musical environments that define his musical past, present and, in many ways, future.

The first surfaced in January with The Game, the newest album by the progressively minded bluegrass band Blue Highway. Though a native of San Francisco, Ickes hooked up in Nashville with the band 20 years ago. That largely introduced him as a talent that would go on to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Dobro Player of the Year an unprecedented 15 times.

The second, Three Bells, came last month. It is a recorded summit with two dobro pioneers that helped forge a stylistic path for Ickes – former Lexingtonian Jerry Douglas and the late Mike Auldridge. The record boasts no rhythm section or musical accomplices of any kind. It instead has three dobro pals merrily conversing. Auldridge succumbed to prostate cancer a matter of weeks after recording sessions concluded.

The third, which brings Ickes back to Lexington for a return visit to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday, has the dobro artist teaming with a young and largely unknown country vocalist and guitarist named Trey Hensley. Their collaboration came about almost by accident, when Hensley was enlisted to help Blue Highway on The Game.

“Trey is a young guy but an old soul,” Ickes said. “You hear that in his voice. There is just something there that sounds really deep to me. He’s soaked up a lot of different influences, but he’s got his own thing going. And he’s one of the best guitar players anywhere. So to me, he’s this surprise that I’ve been excited to share with people. Plus, we have a good time together.”

The duo’s debut album, Before the Sun Goes Down, is due out in January. Its sound is casual and rich with Ickes’ mischievous slide playing and Hensley’s commanding country tenor creating distinctive but homespun harmony. Among the highlights is a roots-country reading of the Stevie Ray Vaughan hit Pride and Joy.

“When Trey plays blues, it’s really authentic sounding to me. It doesn’t sound like a bluegrass guy playing some blues licks. When we do Pride and Joy live with a band, I play lap steel and he plays electric guitar. But on the record, I thought it would be fun just to do an acoustic version and give people a different take on this great song.”

Working with a young artist like Hensley also offers a role reversal from the Three Bells sessions, where Ickes and Douglas were essentially younger protégés of Auldridge.

“The dobro is still kind of an obscure instrument, but Mike gave it this nobility,” Ickes said. “He was a real humble guy but had a pretty big vision for what he wanted to do with the instrument. Mike was all about music his whole life. What a treat to for me to get to record with him and hear our dobros together. But my hat goes off to Jerry for getting the record together because he is such a busy guy. It was just neat that he would make this such a priority because we were in a kind of now-or-never situation.

“Mike knew this was going to be his last session. He told us several times that he was just honored it was going to be with us and that it was going to be a dobro project. He had so much fun on it.”

 Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley perform with Emi Sunshine and Presley Barker perform at 6:45 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 252-8888

jay flippin, 1946-2014

jay+flippen

jay flippin.

One the many tributes to Jay Flippin that flooded Facebook yesterday as word of his death from liver cancer at age 68 began to spread included a photo of the veteran Morehead pianist, composer, educator and bandleader wearing a tee shirt that bore this simple but remarkably telling credo: “Works well with others.”

Ask anybody who knew him, collaborated with him or simply watched him perform and you understood how those four words seemed to embody a boundless spirit. My recognition of that came through watching him perform, usually in small groups with local jazz pals. He had technical chops and stylistic dexterity like no one’s business. While those traits help explain his recorded legacy and the truckload of awards that went with it, the real spark of watching Flippin in performance was the obvious love he displayed for music and his ability to share that with others.

The smiles that broke out on his face as he played and the jovial camaraderie he showed his bandmates were always dealbreakers. It was simply impossible not to get caught up in the pure cheer of his performance demeanor. While I never got to see him play as a church organist or sit in as he instructed his students, I can only imagine the senses of joy, eagerness and invitation abounded there as well.

I met Flippin just once. Curiously, it wasn’t at a performance, but purely by chance following a medical procedure for his cancer treatment. We recognized one another at once and shared a laugh about such social coincidence.

That was perhaps Flippin’s greatest gift. In performance, he could swing and orchestrate like the master he was. But face to face, he was an instant friend whose love of music was exceeded only by his love of life.

braving the elements

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ben sollee. photo by ann evans.

When last we left Ben Sollee, the Lexington cello stylist turned national (and now international) pop-folk journeyman was winning an argument with Mother Nature.

The setting was Phoenix Park, where Sollee, Coralee and the Townies and Josh Nolan held court for the August installment of WUKY-FM’s inaugural Phoenix Friday concert series. Nolan managed to squeeze in his set before the heavens erupted with what was arguably the summer’s most unrelenting thunderstorm.

“When the rain came, everybody went into the various corners,” recounted Sollee, who returns to the region on Thursday for a performance at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “Some people went ahead and left. Some people stayed on. Probably about 30 or 40 of us collected under the canopy of Park Place Apartments. Eventually they called the police, who told us to move along. So we jammed into the elevator lobby.”

Calling the lobby Sollee refers to compact is, at best, generous. Still, with a weatherbeaten crowd that had dwindled from the hundreds to a handful of devotees that included two major VIPs, Sollee adapted to the setting and carried on.

“I grabbed the cello and started playing tunes. It was like, ‘Alright, folks. Elevator concert! Who wants to hear what?’ So as I played my songs, the elevator would come down and the doors would open like in some type of Wes Anderson movie and the people inside would look shocked. Then others started getting the idea to climb up the stairs and get in the elevator and then come down to watch the concert from the elevator.

“It was a really special experience. Probably what made it extra special was my parents, Bob and Myra Sollee, were also huddled around that space. They’re musicians – not professional, but wonderful musicians that raised me on a lot of good music. It’s a rare occasion when we get to sing or jam in any type of public setting. So my mom sang with me and my dad kind of drummed on things. It was really fun.”

The August show continued a fruitful year for Sollee. In September, he undertook his first headlining tour of Europe (he played there previously in collaborative settings with banjo star Abigail Washburn and bluesman Otis Taylor). Last week, he was literally left hanging in North Carolina by the Charlotte Ballet (“They had me in a little platform cage suspended above the stage that moved around during different parts of the show. It was pretty crazy.”). Then, on the heels of the EKU performance, Sollee will perform for two evenings with the Louisville Orchestra and Nashville fiddler Jeremy Kittell on a composition by the latter aptly titled Big Fiddle.

But what of Sollee’s own music? While collaborations and activism continue to drive his career, the always prolific Sollee has not released a new studio album since 2012’s Half-Made Man. That doesn’t mean, though, that the cellist hasn’t been stockpiling a few songs.

“I’ve had music recorded for a long time, but I haven’t put anything out because management and so on are going, ‘Well, we should just get a record label.’ So we keep searching and searching. But I’ve gotten kind of tired of waiting, so I told everybody, ‘Hey I’m going to put out two EPs (a two volume set called Steeples) this fall. Hope you’re all okay with that.’

“You know, I’ve always been the kid who has been into everything. When I was a student at SCAPA (School for Creative and Performing Arts) Lafayette, I was in the orchestra, was in all the musical theatre that I could get into, was briefly on the cheerleading squad, was involved in student government… all of that. I got into everything. What I liked about that was it really taught me how all artistic disciplines kind of inform each other. That’s what I really get excited about.

“Could I have imagined it would all lead to this broad spectrum of projects I’m involved with today? Totally. But picturing how it all shook out on the path to get there? Unimaginable.”

Ben Sollee performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to http://ekucenter.com.

critic’s pick 244: george harrison, ‘the apple years 1968-75′

appleyearsIn 2004, we were presented with The Dark Horse Years 1976-1992, a box set collection that gathered five studio albums and a tentative sounding concert recording that followed George Harrison through a period of commercial and critical rebirth. A fascinating but uneven set, the package left one looming question unanswered – specifically, why wasn’t the initial music Harrison created during the aftermath of The Beatles not given equal attention?

A full decade later comes the reply. The Apple Years 1968-75 serves up Harrison’s first six solo recordings – two experimental instrumental sets and four “proper” albums, one of which has long been sorely underappreciated – to showcase a spiritually imbued sense of pop songcraft.

The instrumental records, Wonderwall Music (1968) and Electronic Sound (1969), have long been dismissed as indulgences. But the former is a real sleeper, a musical kaleidoscope grounded in Eastern instrumentation and inspiration that regularly spins off into a variety of Western pop accents. It is a far more inviting listen today than the primitive analog synthesizer mischief of Electronic Sound (initially released on the short lived Apple offshoot label Zapple).

We won’t spend much time here on Harrison’s first song-oriented record, All Things Must Pass (1970) other than to say to it remains the finest solo album ever issued by a Beatle. Comprised largely of music ignored or unfinished during the Beatles’ final sessions, it is a majestic work in terms of sound, execution and intent. It belongs in everyone’s record collection.

Living in the Material World (1973) sounds as conflicted today as All Things Must Pass sounds resolute. Its appeal is strong, but the spiritual connections seem more obtuse and weighty at times (as in The Light That Has Lighted the World). But there are stunners here, too, like the achingly beautiful awakening anthem Try Some Buy Some and the comparatively whimsical title tune.

In some ways, Dark Horse (1974) is equally stilted, but its sound is looser and leaner. That underscores the hapless domestic upheaval of Simply Sadie and the learned bliss of Far East Man. Unfortunately the scorched vocals of the title song would surface again on a critically lambasted tour to promote the record, Harrison’s only North American concert trek as a solo artist.

If The Apple Years succeeds in nothing else, it helps reintroduce Extra Texture (Read All About It), Harrison’s curiously titled 1975 swansong record for the Apple label. Dismissed as readily as the tour that preceded it, the record is a delight from the start of the brightly orchestrated pop of You to a series of light soul-savvy reveries that culminate in the playful His Name is Legs. The record places the secular and spiritual concerns of Harrison’s music in animated balance to close out The Apple Years in a state of hapless harmony.

critic’s pick 243: lucinda williams, ‘down where the spirit meets the bone’

LUCINDA-BONE_0001If you ever had the desire to simply glide into the ocean of joy and misery that is the music of Lucinda Williams, her new Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone album offers an immediate one-way ticket.

A two disc, 20-song, 1 ¾ hour opus, the recording explores in gloriously unrelenting detail the narrow bonds between love and loss and then colors them with loose, jangly Americana jams that feature such masterful guitar stylists as Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and others. Topping it all is Williams herself and that worn, morning-after voice that sounds alternately battered, hopeful and defiant.

There is a fairly elemental song structure to many of the tunes on Down Where the Spirit

Meets the Bone. It presents Williams as a kind of fact checker that lists the numerous reasons for her particular mindset of vengeance or vulnerability. Take the boozy guitar lament Cold Day in Hell, which catches Williams in an especially unforgiving mood. “Before you trust me again, before you use me again, before I lust for you again, it’ll be….” That, of course, is where the title comes in.

Similar in design, but not intent, is Protection, a cautionary affirmation of a woman “traveling thru the world with dedication” as she seeks shelter from the enemies of love righteousness, good, kindness and, of course, love.

At times. the rants, confessions and meditations peppering the record turn topically political (West Memphis) or richly allegorical (Something Wicked This Way Comes). During When I Look at the World, however, the brilliant duality that has long distinguished Williams’ best music comes to bear. The singer outlines a litany of abuses (“I’ve been been lost, I’ve been turned away, I’ve paid the cost and there’s been hell to pay”). But the song, in essence, is a prayer when its world view becomes less self involved (“I look at the world and it’s a different story”).

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone bookends all this introspection and outward hope with two powerful tributes. The opening Compassion is written around a poem by the singer’s father, Miller Williams, which provides the album with its title. A plea for understanding (“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it”), Compassion is performed as a stark, unaccompanied spiritual. The record ends with a gorgeous cover of J.J. Cale’s Magnolia, which Williams performs as a eulogy before the chiming guitar harmonies of Frisell and Leisz take flight.

How curious. Compassion suggests deep rooted conflict even amid tenderness (“You do not know what wars are going on down where the spirit meets the bone”). But Magnolia almost unwillingly surrenders to love and remembrance, asserting yet another blissful way Williams looks at the world.

in performance: the fauntleroys

FauntleroysByJeffFasano

The Faunterloys : Nicholas Tremulis, Alejandro Escovedo, Ivan Julian and Linda Pitmon. Photo by Jeff Fasano.

Perhaps the most telling moments of last night’s performance by The Fauntleroys at Willie’s Locally Known came during the two cover tunes it cooked up for an encore.

The first, Elvis Costello’s post-punk pop anthem Pump It Up was so untested that the band’s resident celebrity, Alejandro Escovedo, sang the verses from a lyric sheet – and that was only after the members went rifling through stacks and satchels in search of said lyrics. The other was The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, a tune Escovedo has been playing long enough on his own that he can practically lay ownership to it.

There you had it. One tune was ultra tentative, the other second nature. Yet both reflected rock ‘n’ roll in its most joyously elemental form. In other words, the resulting music was as much the expression of four friends sharing a love of proto-punk and pop tradition as it was a declaration of high art (although there was a bit of that at work, too).

The more formal aspects of The Fauntleroys – Escovedo (who played bass), guitarists Nicholas Tremulis (who has led numerous rock ensembles out of Chicago) and Ivan Julian (a one-time bandmate of Lexington-born punk purebred Richard Hell and a veteran of the ‘60s pop troupe The Foundations before that), and drummer Linda Pitmon (last seen in Lexington as part of the all-star Baseball Project) – were quickly put on display by the six songs performed from its newly released debut EP disc Below The Pink Pony.

The best of the lot was Julian’s (This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song, a John Cale-meets-Mazzy Star-like pop incantation that expertly utilized Pitmon as a support vocalist. The most curious entry was the EP’s lone cover, a Tremulis-led take on the Incredible String Band’s Chinese White that underscored obvious accents of psychedelia within The Fauntleroys’ post-punk drive – accents that Tremulis and Julian further enhanced with scattered layers of guitar orchestration.

Escovedo went off the menu for his show-stealer – a riveting obscure original called The Man From Japan that was initially cut for his Real Animal album. An intense, mid-tempo rocker, the tune played readily off of Pitmon’s hearty grooves, Tremulis’ glossary of rhythm guitar chatter and a sense of band immediacy that remained vital right up to the song’s jagged and beautifully abrupt ending.

the new lord fauntleroy

alejandro-2

alejandro escovedo, moonlighting as a fauntleroy.

The Fauntleroys may reflect the design, feel and sound of a strictly extracurricular rock ‘n’ roll activity. But get them in the same city, in the same basement studio and, eventually, the same performance stage and you have making of a champion band.

“Everyone has their own careers and bands that they’re involved in and music that they’re doing,” said veteran Texas songsmith Alejandro Escovedo, who along with three longtime pals – New York guitarist Ivan Julian, self-described Chicago “raconteur” Nicholas Tremulis and celebrated drummer Linda Pitmon – make up The Fauntleroys. “But when we’re together, we really do have the feel of a band. There is just something about it. It’s easy for us to play together having known the music that we’ve known for so many years. We all have the same aesthetic somewhat.”

The four came together in New York with the idea of writing and recording songs with the kind of post-punk pop energy that resounded around the city during the late ‘70s. While Escovedo’s punk fascination initially began on the West Coast with the San Francisco rock troupe The Nuns, he became acquainted with Julian while living in New York in 1978. Already a pop survivor from his ‘60s tenure with The Foundations, Julian had become a member of The Voidoids band led by punk entrepreneur and Lexington native Richard Hell. But the catalyst for The Fauntleroys was Tremulis, whose Chicago bands have meshed multiple accents of rock, soul and pop.

“We’ve talked a long time about doing this but we never really had any time,” Escovedo said of the formation of The Fauntleroys. “So Nick kind of pulled us all together and set up a period where we all were free.”

The New York meeting ground for the four members was a Lower East Side coffee shop called The Pink Pony and, more specifically, the recording studio located beneath it. The members would write lyrics in The Pink Pony then quickly adjourn downstairs to record what they came up with. What resulted was a six song, 23 minute EP disc aptly titled Below the Pink Pony.

“ We would go downstairs to work on a track and then Nick and I would go upstairs and write the lyrics out then go back down and sing them and get everyone to do things. It was a really great experience and a lot of fun. I love working with fresh ideas like that and taking chances. It was really cool.”

Escovedo (who plays bass as a Fauntleroy), Tremulus and Julian each sing lead on two songs. Pitmon, last seen in Lexington with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and husband Steve Wynn in The Baseball Project, added back-up harmonies to each song.

“Linda is amazing, man,” Escovedo said. “What a great drummer and what a great spirit to have in the studio. She’s very, very involved in the moment… just a great musician to play with.

“I think what we came up with is a very New York sounding record. That’s largely due to Ivan’s guitar work and the way he writes. It’s a style that I’ve always loved. I’ve always felt like a part of the New York scene. I guess I really was a part of it because The Nuns were so close to all of the New York bands. We were really more New York than California.”

The Fauntleroys’ fall tour will be brief and brisk – 10 cities in 11 days. After that the members will resume work on their separate careers. But Escovedo said the prospect of returning to The Fauntleroys down the road is favorable.

“There is no reason not to come back to this and make a record that involves more songs with more of an album-like feel and more touring. I’m hoping so, anyway. I mean, it’s just a great band.”

The Fauntleroys perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 5 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to www.willieslex.com.

the soul side of robert cray

robert cray

robert cray.

For a bluesman long devoted to the vocal, compositional and emotive depth of traditional rhythm-and-blues, Robert Cray came to the soul music design of his newest album largely by chance.

The record in question is In My Soul. Specifically, it’s named after Deep in My Soul, a slice of regally orchestrated R&B first popularized by the late blues-soul singer Bobby “Blue” Bland. But as a more encompassing title, In My Soul, also refers to the soul traditions that have always been integral to the blues appeal of the five-time Grammy winning Cray.

Still, it took a little gamesmanship on the part of producer Steve Jordan (known for his work with Keith Richards, Neil Young, John Mayer and many others) to fit Cray’s full run of soul inspirations into In My Soul.

“The album just came out of nowhere, basically,” said guitarist/vocalist Cray, 61, who returns to Central Kentucky for a Monday concert at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. “We had a couple of ideas that were thrown to us by Steve, the first of which was cutting the Otis Redding cover, Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Then he threw out (the 1966 Stax Records gem popularized in 1969 by Lou Rawls) Your Good Thing (is About to End). The guys in the band and myself, we wrote the rest of the songs. But nobody else, outside of myself, knew about those other two songs Steve had suggested. We only presented our material to one another three days before going into the studio with the instructions from Steve to not over rehearse anything. So when we showed up, we had all this R&B stuff.

“As the session went on, I added the Bobby Blue Bland song as kind of a tribute to him because we lost him last year.”

Your Good Thing and Deep in My Soul become subtle epics in the hands of the Cray Band, brewing from subtle studies in brassy R&B into fearsome guitar/vocal confessions. At the other end of In My Soul’s retro-savvy roots exploration is a celebratory party jam called Hip Tight Onions that serves as a gleeful tribute to the ‘60s organ-fueled R&B of Booker T and the MGs. The title is an appropriation of three career defining hits for Booker T – Hip Hug Her, Time is Tight and Green Onions.

“That one came from our bass player Richard Cousins. It’s the first instrumental we’ve ever done.”

Cousins is more than a composing member of the rhythm section. He co-founded the Cray Band with the guitarist in 1974, a time when the soul and even pop inspirations of the budding guitarist began leaning toward the blues.

“When I first started, it was all about the Beatles’ music,” Cray said. “Everybody in my neighborhood got a guitar, so I wanted to play guitar, too. Back then I was inspired by just about everything.

“But I think it was when I saw (Texas born blues guitar great) Albert Collins that everything changed and kind of set me in the direction for where we are now. I saw him having so much fun and just laying waste to anybody else who came onstage before or after him. He was such a great player. I think that was the inspiration for us in starting the band. In the early days, even before we started the Cray Band, Richard and I played in bands together. We even tried to model ourselves after Albert Collins and his show.

“When we get up onstage today, we’re always searching. That’s the one constant. You’re always searching for a new approach to something that’s already there. That’s what makes it so fun for me. Just trying out different things and being put on the spot and being forced to make decisions right then and there – it all about being there at all times. That’s the challenge and that’s what I enjoy about playing music.”

The Robert Cray Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $40, $50 and $65. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

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