In performance: The Robert Cray Band

Robert Cray. Photo by Jeff Katz.

He’s a crafty one, that Robert Cray. For the better part of his first Lexington performance in nearly 15 years, the guitarist and singer, along with the longtime band that still bears his name remained steadfast in a portrayal of the blues that has sustained their music for the better part of three decades. In other words, he remained a master of a blues sound that really wasn’t the blues at all – or at least wasn’t until the performance’s devastatingly potent finale.

Performing last night at the Lexington Opera House (directly across Broadway from the location of the long defunct Short St. club The Bottom Line where Cray made his local debut in 1984), the Cray Band operated far more within the boundaries of soul and Southern R&B than the blues. And that was perfectly fine. That has long been Cray’s comfort zone. His guitar work remained unfussy and expressive, a perfect compliment to the clean rhythmic drive of his band – especially, the keyboard work of Jim Pugh, which regularly referenced shades of rich, unforced gospel.

Of course, all this worked as a backdrop for Cray’s singing, which last night sounded ageless. From the mid-tempo cool of the show-opening Anytime to the playful juke joint strut of Chicken in the Kitchen to soulful solace of I Can’t Fail (one of the more hopeful slow blues tunes you are likely to hear), Cray sang with a range, warmth and emotive clarity than most of today’s big league R&B stars can’t muster. As was the case with the no-frills precision of his guitar playing, there was no grandstanding in the vocal department.

Imagine that – a blues program without the shredding and guitar god posturing and an R&B show without the screams and shouts that pass for passion, all rolled into one.

But just when you settled into this inviting soulfest the way you might settle into a booth at your favorite diner, Cray dropped the bomb. Closing the show was an extended blast of new, original blues called I’m Done Cryin’ that outlined the tale of family man who loses his home and his job but not his dignity.

The guitar work shifted between a very clever chorus riff that sounded like a cross between a march and a bolero, although the serene solos – especially ones that used Pugh’s B3 organ-style keyboard colors as a harmonic device – brought to mind the great bluesman Otis Rush. Cap it all off with vocals that soared into the upper register as the tune’s desperation mounted and you had a serving of serious blues rooted in the real world to balance the tasty comfort soul food that preceded it.

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