in performance: the robert cray band

robert cray

robert cray.

With Valentine’ Day mere hours away, Robert Cray decided to close out his sold out performance last night at the Lyric Theatre with a somewhat sobering take on the holiday.

The finale tune was Time Makes Two, a song propelled by string-like synths that tightened like a noose as the verses progressed, mallet-played drums that made the music seem less like the blues and more like a processional and guitarwork that shelved Cray’s scholarly soloing abilities in favor of broad, fearsome rhythmic sweeps. And then there was the voice, always the Grammy-winning bluesman’s ace-in-hole. It possessed a gospel fervor that simmered until the song’s telling chorus brought the music to a boil: “Time makes two…it takes two to heal a broken heart.”

A patron exiting the show, figuratively broadsided by the song’s intensity, offered this parting remark: “Damn, Robert. Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too.”

Well, folks, they do call it the blues. Cray still exuded a cool and amiable stage presence and preferred echoes of Stax-style soul and assorted rhythm and blues accents of equal vintage to pepper his material over conventional 12 bar blues tunes and the kinds of guitar solos designed as exercises in self-torture. Make no mistake, though. This was the blues – all of it topical and much of it refreshingly blunt.

But the primary charm of last night’s concert, outside of the abundant vocal and guitar strengths, was Cray’s ability to make some of his darkest songs sound so disarming. An extraordinary case in point was Poor Johnny, the highlight tune from Cray’s underrated 2005 album, Twenty. The song’s protagonist, a street kid swept into a life of quick riches with immediate consequences, is doomed almost from the get-go. Yet the song unfolded with a percolating neo-reggae groove, chilled keyboard sounds that mimicked B3 organ and vibraphone, a series of cleanly desperate guitar breaks and a vocal performance that tastefully utilized Cray’s still-youthful falsetto as punctuation. It was a brilliant moment.

Cray’s ‘90 material – specifically, the churchy The Forecast (Calls for Pain) – as well as newer tunes such as Great Big Old House (big as in abandoned) added to Cray’s robust valentine, which was delivered to the Lyric audience in a shade of especially becoming blue.

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