It has been around eighteen months since Robert Cray came to town, touring his latest album Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm.  He’s back again tonight with no new album to promote and in a much larger venue.

Had Cray stuck to the last place he played he’d have sold out.  Tonight though, The Usher Hall is, at a stretch, two-thirds full.  Had tonight’s gig been by some old guy called Eric or some trendy guitar-slinger by the name of Joe, it would, of course, have sold out in a heartbeat but at least those of us who have turned up tonight know that we are about to be entertained by one of the best blues guitarists and singers around.

Cray opens with Phone Booth from his 1983 album Bad Influence.  It’s an immediate reminder of what makes Cray unique; no one else mixes up blues, soul and funk to make the same medicine.  With no new album to promote Cray is free to pull out tracks from across his career and he’s been changing up the songs on the setlist on a nightly basis during this tour.  The band limber up with the aid of the reggaefied bassline of Poor Johnny.  Bassist Richard Cousins, Dover Weinberg on keys and drummer Terence Clark have been together long enough to quickly settle into an easy groove.  Cray flits between intricate rhythm fills and stinging lead licks with an effortless facility and an admirable lack of self-indulgence. 

Killer guitar playing is not the only weapon in Cray’s arsenal; the man can sing.  Not for him the earthy growling vocals of blues giants like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker; Cray brings the pleading, sweet soul tones of Sam Cooke crossed with Marvin Gaye to songs such as The Same Love That Made Me Laugh and The Forecast (Calls For Pain).  The band are also more than capable of bringing the funk with tracks like Chicken In The Kitchen.

Strong Persuader is perhaps Cray’s signature song; it is certainly the one that was responsible for his mainstream breakthrough.  It still retains that Eighties’ soul-pop sheen; something that always sat uncomfortably – no doubt deliberately so – with its story of betrayal and domestic disharmony.  Cray and his band have delivered a righteous performance tonight  but unfortunately in the wrong venue; things haven’t quite caught fire the way they should have done.  The audience don’t seem to mind though and are on their feet for the encores but hopefully next time we will see The Robert Cray Band back in a room more suited to the blues.

John Scott

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