The Blues is all about expression; it is about realizing your darkest fears and conveying it through lyrics, but more often the guitar. Robert Cray is also known as Heavy Pick because of his deliberate and emphatic playing of his instrument. It is as if each note could hold a song, the sounds capturing the listener’s attention like it is the most important thing in that moment. His lyrics are reflected and enhanced by masterful solos that add a deep and vibrant backing sound, and a furry of emotion when needed in the fore ground. Robert Cray, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, is a five-time Grammy Award winning blues musician whose career spans nearly four decades. Cray gained his fame through his fourth album Strong Persuader (Mercury Records, 1986) which included the landmark crossover hit “Smoking Gun”. That album gave him the freedom from then on to explore blues music in any way he so chose. From Strong Persuader it provided for him and his fans tour staples in which included, “Right Next Door (Because of Me)”, “I Guess I Showed Her”, and “Foul Play”. Known for his impeccable live performances, noted both for his vocal and guitar-playing ability. Even now after so many years on the road his voice has held up and his fingers pluck as vibrantly and with as much gusto as if he were still that twenty-something jamming away to Muddy Waters or even doing covers of Fleetwood Mac to make some dough.
The late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw the creation of Cray’s blues, the electric amplification of the Delta sound saw the Chicago Blues methodology build on the favoured Delta Blues. This style originated from the Mississippi Delta that harnessed acoustic sounds from the cigar box Guitar, harmonica and the slide guitar coupled with deep soulful sound and introspective lyrics. The 1980’s saw the revival of the Chicago style which included other greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan who shared had a deep understanding for both lyrics and music. It allowed for them to reach a larger market branching out from their typical audiences building on the successes of the Delta style and those artists who made it so famous, but developed new ways of composing their solos and melodies in each song. The Chicago Blues added the use of horn sections, and the amplification of the guitar and bass, this allowed many artists who successfully reach audiences whom were lovers of the blues as well as the new rock n’ roll.
Cray’s style of blues might have of changed since Strong Persuader but his power and ability to maintain great lyrics and a damn good melody has not. When he originally formed the first incarnation of the Robert Cray Band in the early 1970’s albums like, Bad Influence and False Accusations off Hightone Records, 1983 & 1985 respectfully, showed that he could be one of the greats in blues. Albums in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s included Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Midnight Stroll, and I Was Warned (All Mercury Records) all proved that he was a master, outselling so many other artists in the blues field. That success is coupled with the fact that those records were upbeat in sound and melody combined with deep meaningful lyrics that resonated with many blues aficionados.
Robert Cray’s “I’m Done Crying”
Cray’s later work from late 90’s and early 2000’s continued much of the 1980’s power by adding an additional sound in Jim Pugh and often dive into an emotional melancholy sound in his albums, dropping the horn sections (often performed by the Memphis Horns) and replacing it with a heavier organ on albums like Some Rainy Day, Sweet Potato Pie, and Take Your Shoes Off that defined this era. The late 1990’s offered him a chance to explore a different side to blues reaching into his soul writing albums that identified with people in tangible ways, not pursuing the quick hit but writing and providing music that is timeless. This allowed fans to re-connect with an artist who was living like them, loving like them, and feeling pain like them.
His latest album Nothin But Love contains the same line up of the previous album This Time (2009) comprising of: Jim Pugh (Piano, and Hammond Organ), Richard Cousins (Bass) and Tony Braunagel (Drums). They each play a pivotal role in the creation of the album both musically as well as with the lyrical composition. “Won’t be Coming Home” (Written by Cousins and Hendrix Ackle) the first track off the LP tells that old blues love story meaning a love lost resulting in heartache and heartbreak. This like many blues stories tells of a fiancé leaving, breaking his heart, this is most articulated when Cray bellows “I still set the table/ still set it for you and me/ it’s become a habit/ my own personal make believe”. The image of him still setting the table day in and day out with two place settings, still holding on to a faltered love and refusing to let go. All in all a true blues tune. To truly finish the painting Cray adds a piercing and precise guitar solo to articulate pain that words cannot even describe.
“I’m Done Cryin’” (Cray) is arguably the best tune on the record, it is crisp in sound, full in body and oozes raw unyielding emotion, and of course is topical. The song tells us of how during the recent recession one man loses his job, house – essentially everything; but he doesn’t want anyone’s pity or sadness he “still has his dignity/ [he’s] still a man”. The guy might have lost everything but he will keep moving forward, looking for a new house and work. Cray commented on this song by saying, “We’re not in that position, but as we cruise around the neighborhoods in which we live, you see the ‘For Sale’ signs.” (Taken from the inner notes from the Limited Edition Deluxe CD liner notes) He goes on to say just because it isn’t in the headlines anymore doesn’t mean it is still not there, the song brings light to many examples in which Americans and Canadians face. This song is reminiscent of his tune “Time Makes Two” from the 2003 LP Time Will Tell in melody and sound with the difference being the lyrical theme.
Nothin But Love (Provogue Records) is Cray’s best album in a decade; he has successfully reunited the best a brightest of traditional Delta Blues and the Chicago sound. The amplified set and reintroducing of the horn section on a couple of songs allowed for a mix that works best on the third track: “I’ll Always Remember You” (Pugh). The horns play a big role in the song like a supporting actor to leading man the guitar; they offer a balance, and often a softness that makes this song a real stand out on the record. This latest incarnation of the Robert Cray band have found their stride. The albums written under this line up have been solid lyrically and musically. Each member adds serious depth to each song providing a well-balanced tone to the band that represents all the best parts of blues. The reuniting of Cray and Cousins has seen much of the gusto return to the band. The unwavering work ethic by Pugh is invaluable because his ability highlight the softer side with either a piano or organ adds a crucial depth to many of Cray’s works. Braunagel who was the final piece in 2008 adds a precise ability to keep time and to adapt by going heavy or light as needed. The band continues to please and fans (at least this one) are excited as they move in the right direction. The best advice I have for fans is to see the band live. They are one of the best tours gigs around, solid from top to bottom. Final thoughts on Nothin But Love: this reviewer recommends that you purchase the deluxe addition, and play the record as LOUD as possible. Other songs that popped are: “A Memo”, “Great Big Old House”, “Sadder Days” and “You Belong to Me” (Bonus Track).
Written by Dan Lovell
OurVinyl | Contributor