Larry McCray – Blues Without You
Keeping The Blues Alive Records – 2022
12 tracks; 66 minutes
This album is one of the outstanding releases of 2022. Larry McCray came to prominence in the blues revival of the early 90’s, his debut album Ambition being the first release on Virgin’s Pointblank label. After several well received albums Larry moved away from mainstream labels, releasing a few albums himself, but in recent years he had rather disappeared from sight, until Joe Bonamassa took him into the KTBA fold to produce this album. Backed by a rhythm section of Travis Carlton on bass and Lemar Carter on drums, Reese Wynans on keys and both Joe B and fellow producer Josh Smith adding rhythm guitar, this is a great team, even more so when guitar aces Warren Haynes and Joanna Connor sit in. The horns of Steve Patrick and Jeff Bailey (trumpets), Mark Douthit (sax) and Barry Green (trombone) add to five tracks, strings appear on three cuts, accordion and harmonica are added to a track each and backing vocals throughout come from Jade MacRae and Danielle DeAndrea; on one track the rhythm section is replaced by Larry’s brother Steve on drums and Michael Rhodes on bass. Larry wrote all the songs bar an Albert King cover, collaborating with Peggy Smith on four songs, with Charlie Walmsley on two, Steve Gilbert, James Jabara and Aaron Sarkar on one each.
Many of the songs are quite personal, starting with Larry’s tribute to his birth state ‘Arkansas’: “I was born in Arkansas, come up eating hogs and baling straw. Sowing fields in mid-July, it was hot enough to make you fry. Way down South from Saginaw, I was born in Arkansas”. Played to a thumping beat and punctuated by the horns and gospel choir, it’s a joyous tribute and a great start to the album as Larry exudes confidence on both guitar and vocals. “Without Love It Doesn’t Matter” reminds you of classic Little Feat with thick bass and insistent piano giving the song a loose but funky feel that seems to inspire Larry to put in some dramatic guitar fills before another personal song “Good Die Young” which has a memorable line in the chorus: “They say the good die young, tell me why am I still here”, a funky tune with good horn accompaniment and fine backing vocals. “Down To The Bottom” allows us to appreciate just what a good singer Larry is, accompanied just by acoustic guitar before keys and strings are added on a soulful, gospel-fuelled ballad with another set of beautifully drafted lyrics that really hit the emotional spot; Warren Haynes adds soaring slide to a duet coda that tops the song off perfectly. The sultry horns and strings that open “Breaking News” make another contrast in styles before the tune develops into a rousing soul-funk outing that bemoans some of the problems currently faced by the country.
Larry pays tribute to Albert King, ably demonstrating his ability to bend the strings as Albert used to do on a grinding version of “Roadhouse Blues”, Larry’s soloing well supported by Reese’s organ work and rhythm guitar. “Drinkin’ Liquor And Chasin’ Women” sounds like a politically incorrect title and Larry admits that it has never done him any good, aided and abetted by Joanna Connor who joins in the guitar pyrotechnics, brilliantly supported by Reese’s honky-tonk piano stylings on a real foot-stomper of a tune. In complete contrast “Blues Without You” is a touching ballad dedicated to Larry’s late manager Paul Koch, the strings and Larry’s weeping guitar ideal for the subject matter.
“Mr Easy” is the name that Larry gives himself as he confesses that he does not like to stay in one place too long: “It’s hard to hit a movin’ target and that’s why this boy is gonna roam”. This is the longest cut on the album and that leaves room for co-producer Joe B to get a feature on guitar, sharing the solo spotlight with Larry as the pair duel above a horn-filled background. There are several emotional songs here, but surely none surpasses the deathbed statement of “No More Crying”: “Greener pastures where I’m going, I’m just one step away, though the memories live on cause in your heart is where I’ll stay”. If those lyrics don’t move you, just listen to the emotion in Larry’s vocals and solo.
To close the album Larry offers two songs played in very different styles. “Don’t Put Your Dreams To Bed” has positive lyrics about never giving up, played over a relentlessly funky tune: “My Mama told me when a dream is left undone it dries up like a raisin left out in the sun; we got to keep dreaming, we’re running out of time”. The backing vocalists are again spot on and Larry’s solo captures the feel of the song wonderfully well. Closer “I Play The Blues” is solo acoustic as Larry testifies that he “will play the sad blues…I’ll keep on doin’ it until the day I die”.
A quite superb album. Make sure that you buy it immediately!