For thirty-plus years Robert Cray has laid down track after
track of good-time, uptown, low-down blues. He's won five Grammys and been nominated
for 11 more, inspired critics to praise his soulful vocal and instrumental artistry,
earned respect from his peers, and sent young guitarists running back to the
woodshed. What he hasn't done is work this magic on a full-length concert CD,
where the fires that drive him onstage burn on disc as well. Not, that is, until
On The Robert Cray Band: "Live From Across The Pond",
the first release on Cray's own Nozzle Records imprint, the celebrated triple-threat
singer, guitar slinger, and songwriter presents the best moments from his week-long
run at London's Royal Albert Hall in May 2006, opening for friend and mutual
admirer Eric Clapton. From classic titles ("Phone Booth") to highlights
from his latest releases ("Poor Johnny"), whether addressing timeless
themes of heartache and romance ("The Things You Do To Me") or this
morning's headlines ("Twenty"), Cray delivers on a promise he's been
making since his first trip into the studio. That promise to record himself
and his band when inspired by their fans at the instant of performance pays
off on Live.
And it pays double, by the way, on two CDs, each packed with
about as much intense, emotional playing as a listener can handle in one sitting
all of it a pristine reproduction of what transpired under the spotlights, without
a single edit or punch-in. Once the rush of Live begins to settle down, though,
it's natural to wonder why Cray took this long to document his stage chops.
Ask him, and his answer is disarmingly candid.
"In the past, whenever we've known that we were going
to record ourselves onstage, we've just gotten too psyched up to sound as strong
as we normally do," he says. "You go into it feeling like you've got
this one shot, and that can be challenging. I've actually lost my voice from
Live was different in that it draws from seven consecutive
shows at the Royal Albert Hall, which allowed Cray and his road-seasoned band
keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Sevareid, and drummer Kevin Hayes to feel
more at home from one night to the next. "After just a short while we weren't
even thinking about the recording," he explains. "We were only thinking
about the music and about playing at this particular venue."
Cray and his crew were in fact familiar with the Royal Albert
Hall, having played there more than a few times with Clapton over the years.
That, plus Cray's affection for London in general, contributed to the vibe.
It's a paradox, perhaps, that as musicians relax, they lock tighter with each
other and play with deeper feeling yet the evidence is there, on each track
When the London dates were done, Cray returned to the States
and began going over the results. What he heard was, he admits, an eye-opener
in some ways. "When I'm playing up there, I don't really catch everything
that's going on. But when I sat back and listened to the tapes, it was like,
'Wow, these guys are great!'"
He laughs at his own surprise after all, knowing each player
as long as he has, the excellence of these recordings was more a reminder than
a revelation. "What I mean is, so much stuff goes on that I can't really
catch it all. I'm singing and feeling their support, but when I take myself
out of the playing picture and just listen, that's when I really hear how magical
the ensemble can be."
The toughest part of putting Live together involved choosing
which tracks would make the cut. Cray tackled this job meticulously, playing
through all seven concerts and taking detailed notes. "I was listening
for the best performances," he explains. "I listened for enthusiasm,
if that's what was called for in the song. And I listened for things that stood
out from the norm. One night, for example, we played 'Our Last Time,' and Jim
Pugh, who normally plays piano on that one, decided to do it on organ. I went
with that version not only because it sounded great but also because it was
Cray's band rocks and wails and plunges way down to the bottom
of the blues well on track after track. And as for Pugh's solo organ showcase
in the midst of "The One in the Middle"? Let's say that unless you're
going to a sanctified church every Sunday, it's been a while since you've heard
anything like this. Aside from their musicianship, the key to Cray and his band
is their history. Through more than a thousand gigs played around the world,
they've locked in a sound that's elegant and direct, searing and smooth.
And before that, Cray himself developed quickly, having been
raised on the gospel and soul records in his parents' collection while growing
up in Georgia and Washington State. By the time he formed his first band in
1974, the components of his sound were in place: a vocal delivery rooted in
the Stax / soul tradition and a Stratocaster guitar style that even then stood
him out among the greatest of his peers in the blues.
Perhaps another reason for the passion of Live owes to the
importance of England in helping Cray launch his career. His second album, Bad
Influence (1984), shot to number one on the U.K. indie charts while Clapton
paid tribute to his colleague by covering the title song. From that point he
rose quickly to worldwide prominence, earning his first Grammy for Strong Persuader
(1986), releasing one double-platinum and two gold albums, and appearing or
recording with the Rolling Stones, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker,
Chuck Berry, Bonnie Raitt, and other giants.
The Cray saga continues on September 16, as he embarks once
again with Eric Clapton on a North American tour just four days after The Robert
Cray Band: "Live From Across The Pond", issued on Nozzle and distributed
by Vanguard, drops in stores across America.