in performance: the robert cray band

Robert Cray.

During a very brief tuning break between songs last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, Robert Cray plucked out a chord, took a beat to appraise his work and gave a quick summation of the discovered sound.


Then another chord and another slightly more demonstrative judgment.


Finally, a more developed lick emerged, full of the tone and lyrical clarity he seemed to be searching for. A louder verdict was reached.


A man of few words but many musical expressions – that’s our Cray. As one of the most dependable live acts on the blues and soul circuit, the Grammy winning guitarist and vocalist, along with his long-running band, wasn’t exactly full of surprises. Last night’s 90 minute concert possessed more of the same blues inspired R&B that has long defined both his vocal and guitar work for the last three-plus decades. But Cray was in no way going through roots-informed motions during the show. His playing was clean and precise but never antiseptic or stale in a way so many blues/soul artists can sound after a lifetime on the road.

For instance, during “Two Steps from the End” (the tune the “yeah, yeah, yeahs” led into), Cray’s soloing settled into an almost sinister cool that played off of the equally serene B3 organ orchestration of Dover Weinberg. But on “Move a Mountain” (a wonderful deep track pulled from 1990’s “Midnight Stroll” album), the guitar drive grew more muscular to sustain the tune’s punctuated drive. Then on “You Have My Heart” (one of six tunes performed from 2017’s “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm,” his newest recording) and “Right Next Door” (a hit off of 1986’s career-making “Strong Persuader”), the guitar sound dipped low, bringing the full band to a luscious, organic fade.

There were similar dynamics to Cray’s singing, which has never received its proper due through the years. On the show opening “I Shiver,’ the 64 year artist effortlessly reached a crisp, high soul tenor. For “I Don’t Care,” he sailed just as readily into a ringing falsetto. The latter was one of several songs (“Fix This” and “Sadder Days” were others) possessing titles and lyrics that suggested a trip to the deeper abyss of the blues. But the music surrounding them was positively sunny, both in Cray’s jubilant guitar leads and the summery soul cast of his vocals.

Guess you really can’t judge a song by its title. Take “Phone Booth,” a 1983 Cray gem served up as one of two encore tunes (the mighty blues opus “Time Makes Two” was the other). The song’s desperate protagonist may have been calling from a phone booth, but none of the familiar fare the real Cray was dispensing last night was being phoned in.

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