CD 1: 13 tracks; 74 minutes
To celebrate his fortieth year in the business Robert Cray held a four night series of shows in LA. What is available is a CD of those shows, a second disc with songs selected from the band’s 1982 San Francisco Blues Festival set, together with some songs recorded for Dutch TV in 1987. To complete the package is a DVD or Blu-Ray which picks the best moments from all the above shows, together with Cray’s and other musicians’ (Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Keith Richards) reminiscences about his career. This review, however, is based solely on the CD of the contemporary shows.
Robert’s current band consists of Robert on guitar and vocals, long-time bassist Richard Cousins, drummer Les Falconer and keyboardist Dover Weinberg (who was also in Robert’s very first band). A two-man horn section of Steve Madaio on trumpet and Trevor Lawrence on sax (dubbed ‘The Cats’) adds considerably to several tracks and there are guest spots for producer Steve Jordan (drums), Kim Wilson (vocals) and Lee Oskar (harp). The biggest problem must have been the track selection because with 20 albums behind him, Robert has an awful lot of great material from which to choose. The tracks here range right across his career and only one song appears on both the current and historical sets, the classic “Right Next Door”.
Robert’s strength has always been to combine a great voice with stinging guitar playing and some memorable songs. The album opens with “I Shiver”, the horns making a real impression on the song, as they also do on the slow blues “I’ll Always Remember You” which is superbly done with great piano and the horns. The horns are absent for the cautionary tale of “Poor Johnny” which finds Robert singing and playing brilliantly. “Won’t Be Coming Home” is archetypically Robert Cray, his funky rhythm guitar work supported by the organ and solid rhythm section, all building into a catchy chorus.
The slow soul-blues of “Your Good Thing Is About To End” brings back the horns to add brooding support to Robert’s vocals and Cropperesque guitar. The guests start with Lee Oskar’s harp on Howling Wolf’s “Sitting On Top Of The World” which is played pretty straight and allows us to hear the solid piano work of Dover and the rock solid bass and drums. Kim Wilson is on hand to share vocals with Robert on Sam And Dave’s “Wrap It Up” (a song also covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, of course) but this is a storming version, possibly the best cut on the whole album, as everyone plays brilliantly: the rumbling bass at the start, a fabulous horn arrangement and the excellent duet vocals between Robert and Kim.
The horns remain on board for another great track in the soulful “Love Gone To Waste” and then it’s time for some of the older hits as Robert goes all the way back to a song that Eric Clapton once covered, “Bad Influence”, which features Dover’s organ. “These Things” is probably as close to a straight blues as Robert gets on his own material here, the nagging guitar riff bringing us back all the time to the blues and Robert producing his edgiest playing of the disc. “Right Next Door” is probably Robert’s best known song, not least as it introduced us all to Robert’s alter ego ‘Young Bob’ the guy whose affair with his neighbor is the subject of the song. Robert’s sublimely quiet playing on the extended outro underlines the heartbreak of the song’s subject matter.
The horns make a final appearance to beef up “The Forecast Calls For Pain”, another of Robert’s rather pessimistic songs before Robert introduces the band and then says that they will “do one more as a quartet”, heralding the slow “Time Makes Two” which finds Dover producing almost a string part on his keyboard as Robert demonstrates his skills on both vocal and guitar to close the show.
As a live set this CD works very well with a careful selection of material across many of Robert’s albums, together with a couple of covers to allow some guests to add to the fun. One suspects that the full package will be well worth investigating.