Robert Cray

Robert Cray

Aerial Theater, Houston, TX • June 11, 1999

Seeing Robert Cray play his new music live proved a revelation for the soul and the romantic senses. Cray still sings bluesy themes and speaks to the broken heart in all humans, yet his new music owes more to the soulful stylings of the Stax era and the Motown soundwhich were pioneered in the ’60s and ’70s by Ann Peebles and Al Green. There’s less B.B. King and more soulful, rock-tinged swinging out on his new CD, Take Your Shoes Off , which just appeared on the relatively medium-sized Ryko record label.

Cray’s performance, accompanied by his own band and the flawless Memphis Horns, was impeccable. “When you do that thing you do/ Bring me out of my socks and shoes,” Cray sings eloquently of the beauty of love at one point, very soulfully. Then he and the band kicked into high gear on playing the very funky “Love Gone to Waste,” an upbeat blues-soul hybrid that deserves to be on the radio with considerable frequency.It’s got a beat, and you could dance to it.

It was hard to ignore some rumblings from diehard fans for his early catalog songs, but in truth, this new style seems more multi-faceted, and to fit his persona better. “Why can’t you be/ the same person you used to be,” Cray pleads to his lover. “If you don’t use, you lose, so why can’t you do the same things you used to do?” Familiar themes of love grown cold, yet Cray and his band, through his excellent singing and stunning guitar soloing, and a stirring keyboard solo, shine like the stars above. As always, the music’s richly textured — elements of rock, soul, and blues coming through like strands in a beautiful tapestry.

“Too much at stake to walk out in haste,” Cray sings, “Love gone to waste…”The new numbers sounded fine, and there were some older gems given their chance to dazzle. These blues-rock songs allowed for more jazzy touches.That’s what blues has always been about — self-expression and the freedom to do what you feel.Cray makes his guitar sing as sweetly as any voice through many songs, as when he sang about wanting to be “…your 24-7 man…” Ain’t no shame in my game, he reminded the rapt audience as he cranked out a twangy blues-rock jam accompanied by a slightly psychedelic organ swirl.

“Now I want to do something funky,” he told the crowd as he launched into a number that encompasses both quiet, silky passages and raging funk. “Could I have done something wrong?,” he plaintively asks his lover, and the listener as one. As he tells the tale of three women, a thousand places that spring into his mind, and the total contrast in their characters and their attitudes toward him, the depth of his personality and lyric writing emerged. The stunning work on tenor saxophone and trumpet didn’t hurt the song one bit, either.

Cray plays the only guitar in his band, which means that the sheer range and variety, and constant fascination, in his guitar treatments of his tunes proves a true wonder. He’s accompanied by merely a bass guitar, drummer, keyboard player, and those excellent Memphis Horns. The band as a whole plays an exquisite, understated, yet at times raucous mix. Cray himself hammered that point home with a classic rock-tinged guitar solo which seemed incredibly phased-in and -out at once.

The most twangy, upbeat, rocking number yet followed, as Cray asked, “Grant me a pardon from love…” Cray’s guitar reminded one of Keith Richards and Ron Wood playing together in the same body. He achieves that Stones two-guitar onslaught, yet he sings, as well — and with expressiveness that fits his heartfelt songs.Cray sings of misery, yet he always endeavors to see that silver lining. He soars while his heart aches. He asks, “Why ain’t I dead,” yet remains the upbeat blues-soul-rock master. A killer sax solo doesn’t hurt this portion of the show a bit.

All along, Robert Cray has been making inroads where it was widely thought he couldn’t. He brought his brand of blues into the mainstream rock radio playlists. Now he’s trying to bring the era of the great soul singers who also took rock radio by storm. And he’s not giving up a bit of his instrumental mastery in doing it.A stirring show, and a worthwhile new album in Take Your Shoes Off . Robert Cray shows how it ought to be done.

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