He’s played with Eric Clapton and John Lee Hooker to name but two, appeared at the now legendary Crossroads festival, picked up five Grammy awards for his work and been inducted into the Blues hall of fame. It is, therefore, no small thing to be reviewing the new Robert Cray album for the man is, without a doubt, a legend in his field and the anticipation that has surrounded this release, his first since 2009’s ‘This time’, has been swelling rapidly ever since the disc was announced a few months back.
The album opens with a roll of thunderous drums before the beautifully languid guitar of ‘(won’t be) coming home’ slips lazily into view. Robert’s guitar sings out loud and clear through a pristine mix (provided by Kevin Shirley) whilst the music, augmented by Richard Cousins (Bass), Jim Pugh (Keyboards) and Tony Braunagel (Drums) is a near perfect blues lament about a loved one who has moved on. It is a brilliant opening number that benefits from a sublime solo over the bridge that slides out of the speakers as smooth as silk whilst the band keep things solid but delightfully loose, as if they’re playing live for you and you alone as you sit and allow the warmth and tone of the music to seep into your soul. ‘Worry’ places the keyboards of Jim Pugh up front and centre for a jazzy journey that once again benefits from a solid guitar solo whilst the whole recalls the work Clapton did with Michael Kamen for the Lethal Weapon soundtracks – bluesy but with a pop edge that draws you to it like a moth to a flame. The feel changes on ‘I’ll always remember you’ which transports you body and soul to a smoky, underground bar in New Orleans where Robert is delivering his musical sermon from a tiny stage sticky from spilt whiskey, whilst drunken patrons spill their life stories to sympathetic bar-tenders. It’s romantic, soulful, beautiful jazz-laden blues and between Robert’s utterly enthralling delivery and the bands lascivious strut the music hauls you out of your everyday life and takes you on a journey that sees you entirely lost to the power of the music until the album stops spinning.
Having slowed down the pace considerably on the previous track, ‘side dish’ heads off in a rockier direction, Jim tinkling the ivories whilst Robert plays fast and loose on a track that is a frenetic throwback to the sweat and spit of fifties rock ‘n’ roll. ‘A memo’ takes things down a notch for a soul-drenched number, Richard Cousin’s inventive bass lines locked in with Tony Braunagel’s solid beat while Robert and Jim add the sugar on guitars and keyboards respectively. Once again it is Robert’s voice and guitar that draw the attention – laden with personality and emotion he puts his heart and soul into inhabiting the roles in the songs, whilst his solos are second to none, his guitar expressing passions that run too deep to express in mere words. ‘Blues get off my shoulder’ is a deeper, darker number that shows the singer endeavouring to break free of the powerful grip of The Blues before the band unveil a lighter touch on the bouncy ‘fix this’ which contrasts a lyrical tale of love and loss with a musical backdrop that veers much closer to soul than to the blues.
Moving back into the pure blues territory of Robert Johnson et al, ‘no more tears’ is a slow, moody piece that smoulders where other tracks on the album burn, and as a result it feels more earthy and downtrodden, with even the keyboard-based orchestrations failing to sweeten the bitter pill of the lyric “there’s only so much a man can do when all the odds are stacked up against you.” A different sort of loss is represented on ‘great big old house’, a powerful, soul-sweetened tale of repossession in which the narrator laments the loss of his home, a song that should strike a chord with many in this difficult time of recession and uncertainty. Final track ‘sadder days’ arrives far too suddenly, the listener unprepared for the album to be over so soon (or so it feels) and it’s a beautiful closer that recalls the emotional might of Gary Moore via ‘midnight blues’ and the smoky soul of Ray Charles at his most restrained.
Robert Cray is, without a doubt, one of the foremost musicians in Blues today. His strength comes not only from his voice and guitar playing skills (although both are utterly remarkable) but also from his ability to draw in threads from other genres such as rock and soul whilst still maintaining the integrity of the blues. Through SonicAbuse I have often maintained that the best music, no matter what the genre, should lift you out of your life and take you on a journey. That journey may be to the lands of fantasy, or it may be just to a different locale, one that you can see, feel and taste thanks to the power of the music and the imagery it creates. Robert Cray and his excellent band do just that. You can feel the sorrow of the narrator whose house has been taken and you can identify with the beaten down singer of ‘no more tears’. Yet Robert’s gift is that the music is cathartic, never self-pitying or indulgent. You can feel and empathise with his characters but there is such power and wonder in the music that you end up coming away feeling stronger, elated, ready to face the world again. ‘Nothin but love’ may well end up being the Blues album of the year; it may even gain its author another Grammy; but all the plaudits in the world will not be enough to recognise the simple power of great music and the way that it speaks to those who feel it and understand it. This is a wonderful record, as timeless as the blues itself, and a fine testament to the skill of Robert Cray and his band.