in performance: the robert cray band

robert cray.

After opening his performance last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort with an overlooked 2001 gem called “Anytime” that was full of blues/soul authority but little undue fanfare, Robert Cray shielded his eyes and asked the tech crew to soften the spotlight that was squarely centered on him.

“I’ve got nowhere to hide,” the guitarist remarked.

That was a telling phrase. On the surface, it spoke to the genial and retiring nature Cray has long maintained onstage, an attribute the entire 100 minute performance also adhered to. Time and time again, Cray made blues and soul traditions work as a single platform. His guitarwork and vocals were so at home with each other that there was no need to exert the sort of tortured artist effect many purveyors of these styles summon to establish performance credibility. Last night, Cray dished out one epic guitar break after another, from the neo-psychedelic drive established on the original “You Had My Heart” (one of four tunes played from the new “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” album) to the chestnut “Phone Booth (which dated back to 1983’s “Bad Influence”) that let a light, limber groove bust out into a hearty ensemble jam. Ditto for the singing, where Cray’s ageless tenor (and occasional falsetto) undercut the rhumba-esque rhythm of “Will You Think of Me” (from 1995’s “Some Rainy Morning”) one moment and ignited the full summery R&B bounce of “You Move Me” (from 2014’s underrated “In My Soul”) a few songs later. During one remarkable instance, “It Doesn’t Show” (off of 2005’s “Twenty), Cray’s instrumental and vocal blend created a call-and-response dialogue within the tune’s slower sense of soul-savvy cool.

Aside from all the far corners of his career such a setlist took him to (which covered nearly a dozen different albums spanning 34 years), what remained Cray’s primary artistic strength was his ability to embrace the soul and blues accents of his music so naturally. Admittedly, he’s not the biggest risk taker. The songs from “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” (so named because the record was cut not his usual band but a team of veteran Memphis session players at the famed Royal Studio) could have passed for any number of the soul-fused works from throughout the guitarist’s career that peppered last night’s show. On the other hand, Cray delivery was so confident and schooled that the repertoire never remotely sounded stoic or stale.

That was especially true when two tunes near the end of the show managed to shake up the soul foundation a bit. One was the set-closing “You Must Believe in Yourself” (from “Hi Rhythm”) which triggered the Cray band’s most immediate and propulsive rhythmic drive of the night. The other, an encore finale of “Time Makes Two” (off of 2003’s “Time Will Tell”), ended the show with a soul-blues manifesto fortified by the mallet drumming of Terence Clark, the deep pocket bass of Richard Cousins and the orchestral keyboard backdrops of Dover Weinberg, all of which set up and supported Cray’s most dramatic guitar excursion of the show.

Yep, there was nowhere for Cray to hide, alright. But when the music flowed so efficiently and exactly, why would he even want to?

 



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