It is hardly a secret that Robert Cray has often been dismissed in certain blues purist circles as being a mainstream pop player. Cray himself acknowledges this, brushing his detractors off as "bluenatics." Whatever else might be said about his style, however, the fact remains that he can make a guitar talk. The only debate centers over what he makes the guitar say.
Live From Across the Pond, the latest release from the Robert Cray Band, will do little to dissuade either faction. But it will give both sides pause to consider their stances. Recorded over the course of seven shows at London's Royal Albert Hall earlier this year, when Cray and his band were opening for Eric Clapton, it's an album that showcases the band's strengths as a live act.
Alternately restrained and wide open, the band plays to the audience in a way that only seasoned pros can, hitting each note with authority and dead-on timing. And while Cray is indisputably the focal point of the band, he readily acknowledges his bandmates, particularly kyeboardist Jim Pugh. Through the course of the album, Pugh's Hammond organ stylings play off Cray's blues licks, creating a sound as much R&B as it is traditional blues. Kevin Hayes on drums and bassist Karl Sevareid make no attempt at at showcasing their talents. Rather, they do exactlywhat it is a rhythm section is supposed to do– they cement the performances.
Robert Cray has never been a blues player — at least not in the traditional sense. His sensibilities as a musician owe as much to Stax soul artists and Eric Clapton's take on blues as they do the roots of the genre. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, Cray has always geared his music to an upscale audience than what is thematically associated with the blues – his backdrop is more SoHo than NoLa. What results is an idiom that is a fusion of urban soul and delta blues.
Left to his own devices, Cray will opt for the claustrophobia of a rain-soaked phone booth over an open house door to express the anguish of failed relationships. The lyrics are nearly inconsequential in most of these songs — it is the converation between Cray's stratocaster and Pugh's Hammond B3 that ultimately resonates with the listener. Particularly on songs like "Our Last Time" and "I Guess I Showed Her," the relationship between strings and keys is played like foreplay resulting in the climax of "The Things You Do To Me."
On "Twenty," Cray finally offers a definition of "modern blues", with his tale of a young urbanite wanting to avenge 9/11 in Afghanistan, only to be shipped to be Iraq, where he meets a uselesss death. It's a poignant tune, not overtly political, that sizes up the confusion of our current state of mindset. But it's on "Back Door Slam" that Cray dispells any notions that he is not, at least in heart, a bluesman to be reckoned with.
"I am what I am," he growls defiantly. "I am the backdoor slam." This may be more prophecy than bravado. Cray and his band pay tribute both to the blues and to the Stax definition of soul. They don't by any definition set new standards here. What they do accomplish, however, is a collection of tunes that serve as an introduction to soul music and the blues.
Longtime blues afficionados are unlikely to embrace Live Across the Pond as a turning point in Robert Cray's career. Nor should they. This is hardly a groundbreaking album. It is, however, the first live album the Robert Cray Band has ever released. As such, it offers us a perspective on the way the man puts his performance together.
It gers down to this: Robert Cray can play the hell out of a Stratocaster. Robert Cray plays to the room. Robert Cray is not a blues player in the traditional sence. Neither was Stevie Ray Vaughan. As Stevie brought a rock sensibility to blues, Robert Cray brings a Memphis soul sensibility to blues. Both brought blues into a mainstream mindset.
In the end, Robert Cray's influence on the state of so-called modern blues cannot be underestimated. Live Across the Pond shows why.