It was a dismal, cold night with an ever present threat of rain that brought Robert Cray to London’s plush Cadogan Hall – it’s a converted church, and tonight it was a Temple to the Blues. Cray returned to London with a three piece backing band – the dread-locked and barefoot super-cool bass player Richard Cousins, keyboard maestro Dover “Whitecliffs” Weinberg and the passionate and inventive Terence Clark on drums. And up front, flanked by Matchless Speakers, was of course Robert Cray – belying his age, dressed in his trademark “preppy” style, he looks younger than his 63 years. That’s always been the case with Mr Cray though, when he was breaking through in the early ’80s, and being feted as the young saviour of the blues he was already in his thirties with several years of touring behind him. Did he really save the Blues ? Well, through his combination of traditional Blues elements blended with more than a little soulfulness and a rock, and yes even a pop, sensibility, he found a sound that brought in a new – and crucially younger – audience. Eric Clapton aside you’d have struggled to find a Blues album on the music charts in the middle of the eighties before Robert Cray broke through with Strong Persuader and Don’t be afraid of the dark.
Why the breakthrough? Well, Robert Cray brings a special sense to the Blues. He’s both a superb and creative guitar player and also a really fine soulful singer, bringing a smoothness to his tales of unfaithful lovers, bad luck and cheats. And there’s plenty of this on display at Cadogan Hall from the very first opening bars of Why you wanna make me cry. Shadey characters walk through some of his stories – Poor Johnny is about a chancer who takes his luck too far and finds himself the target of a mob takedown – never has casual gangland murder sounded more melodic: with the, literal, killer chorus hook “once from the left, then from the right, they took him down late that night”. Although he mostly keeps his between songs chat to a “thank you so very much” there are a couple of times when Robert Cray expounds a little more. One such is after an impeccable Phone Booth where he quips that London is perhaps the last place in the world that he doesn’t have to explain what a phone booth is. It’s a great song, a perfect example of the blues meets rock that served to initially focus attention on this talented guitarist. On this night it’s incredibly funky, with a great gurgling organ part alongside Robert Cray’s fluid string bending.
Robert Cray and his band aren’t blues one-trick ponies: Your Good Thing Is About To End is a fine pop-blues, with almost a Motown feel to it, whilst You Had My Heart – from his newly released album Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm – is slow and groovy with a delicate guitar coda. Dover Weinberg gets to shine on I Shiver with a long organ solo, a real treat this. Right Next Door (Because of me) is given that eighties feel by Terence Clark’s perfect drumming, and showcases Dennis Walker’s inventive take on moving in on, and then breaking up, someone else’s good thing. And not straying too far from home to do it – “I heard him shout who is he, she mumbled low / He said baby don’t you lie to me no more And I’m listening thru these thin walls silently / As he called out my name I was right next door”. The way we are, another from the new album, is wryly introduced as “a love song – who knows where that came from?”. It’s a perfect slow soul ballad, making a nice contrast within the set, and coaxes out Robert Cray’s sweetest and gentlest vocal. In the encore there’s continued variation – Sitting on top of the world is, unsurprisingly, something of a band workout but it also sees Robert Cray unleash some chunkier playing, a harder edged Chicago Blues sound. The closer Time Makes Two is the blues taken to a huge and widescreen level – building from the slightest opening to the broadest, deepest and affecting musical climax. Exhilarating.
Robert Cray is clean cut cool – both in his presentation and his inch perfect playing which casually marks him out as a genuine guitar god. And with a band who are so in tune with his playing it’s a real joy to see and hear – you know that when a band are grinning between each other that they’re having a really good time and this is infectious as they chuck solos about between each other and are so incredibly tight as a unit. It’s a sensationally good sound. And a sensationally great night – anyone who has any love for this style of urban blues and admires skilled musicians and especially smooth and fluid guitar playing should make every effort to catch Robert Cray live at the earliest opportunity.
Support had come from Jeb Loy Nichols who came at his blues from a diametrically opposed direction to the headliner. His songs are long, slow and ruminating – the world weary vocals are constructed to appear as if they are extemporised, fuelled by Nichols’ suffering and woe. These are songs of the loner, who is “doing all right, then the world got in” and who has a bleak outlook on life “only three things I regret” he sings before sweeping these up “what I’ve done, what I’m doing and what I haven’t done yet”. His between song raps with the audience are equally laconic, he notes that he’s originally from Missouri, and like a lot of people he left Missouri, but unlike a lot of people he ended up in Wales. It was somewhere he could get away from everyone – but after a while he found there were a lot of people there who’d left to get away from everybody. Downbeat, but with a wry self-deprecating streak of optimism – or at least a determination to survive – he was the perfect yin to Robert Cray’s yang.
Why You Wanna Make Me Cry
I’ll Always Remember You
Your Good Thing Is About To End
I Don’t Care
You had my heart
It Doesn’t Show
Won’t Be Coming Home
Right Next Door (Because of Me)
The Forecast (Calls for Pain)
The Way We Are
You Must Believe In Yourself
Sitting on Top of the World
Chicken in the Kitchen
Time Makes Two