4 Nights of 40 Years Live – The Robert Cray Band (reviewed by Ian O’Regan)

full34353034I am immediately reminded of three things as soon as I start listening to this live recording of some of Robert Cray’s best known music of his 40 year career:

1. Cray has never been JUST blues. His music has always drawn heavily upon and featured influences from soul, jazz, and gospel, as well as displaying a real understanding of the sensibilities of pop music.

2. It’s all about the songwriting! Musically complex without being forced or pretentious, his catalogue has far fewer three chord tricks than you might imagine for someone who was hailed as the saviour of the blues back in the 80s.

3. The Robert Cray Band is now, and always has been, Sssseriously cool!

Why I should need to be reminded of these things is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it’s because his music has always tended to be very understated, sitting on the cd rack waiting to be discovered and rediscovered, seminal songs that infiltrate subtly, adding to my overall influence without ever demanding credit? Perhaps it’s because his lead guitar playing is equally understated, sticking to fairly simple blues scale formats, successfully relying on his ability to portray the rawest of emotions in the fewest possible moves?

He has never resorted to the shouty, overworked aggression of a Gary Moore, or to the increasingly sterile and clinical ostentation of a Joe Bonamassa. He just plays it like he feels it – and boy, does he feel it!

You feel that he could probably sing all of his guitar solos, and because his vocal style snd his guitar playing feel so well blended, there are no breaks, no barriers to be crossed by the listener between the vocal parts and the guitar breaks. It’s all perfectly effortless, but without ever losing any of the pain and heartbreak.

This retrospective selection celebrates his 40 years of recording and touring with the pick of four gigs in different venues in California in December 2014. There is some additional footage on the DVD from gigs in 1982 and 1987, which serves to highlight how little has changed in 4 decades. He was great then and he’s great now. The quality of his songwriting has always been such that if you don’t know which songs are from which decades, there’s nothing in the style or quality of each song to give it away.

There are a couple of disposable numbers for me. The inclusion tracks featuring guests – Kim Wilson adding vocals on Wrap It Up and Lee Oskar playing harmonica on Sitting On Top Of The World – would no doubt have added value for the ticket-buying audiences, but they don’t add much the narrative of “Young Bob” 40 years on. If you have a choice, buy the DVD, not just because watching a great band is even better than listening to a great band, but also because the sound production on the CD feels somehow a little bit flat; as if the soul and feel and force of the performances were definitely there, but the sound engineer has flattened them in the interests of achieving a perfect balance. Much like Cray’s playing, which has never been shy or self-conscious about the occasional wrong note, live recordings, blues music, even life itself, are far more interesting and entertaining with a few rough edges left in. It’s a good thing to have Robert Cray to remind me of that every now and again.

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