Celebrating forty years of writing, playing and recording the blues, Robert Cray is currently on the road in the UK bringing his wonderful show to a wealth of great venues. First in line was the Theatre Royal in Nottingham which saw an appreciative, if somewhat staid, crowd catching Robert after an absence of three years. With the wonderfully effervescent Richard Cousins on bass, the mighty Les Falconer on drums and the understated presence that is Dover Weinberg on bass, Robert Cray delivered a beautifully paced set that covered numerous bases all tethered to the blues by some stunning guitar work and that oh-so-soulful delivery. It was a simple pleasure to witness four masters of their art at work together (and clearly enjoying every minute of it) and the spontaneous set list was a delight.
From the moment the Robert Cray band took to the stage it was clear that this was going to be a special set. Opening with ‘blues get off of my shoulder’, the sound was crystal clear and at just the right volume, and the band played with a concentrated fire that manifested itself via Robert’s fluid solos and Les Falconer’s whip-crack drums. What a start to the show, and from there it only got better. The rapport between the musicians was genuine and beautiful to witness and poor Richard Cousins spent a good deal of the set dancing between basses (“I like to make him dance” confided Robert Cray with a mischievous grin) as Robert and Les seemingly grabbed song titles out of thin air. Of course, when you have a back catalogue like Robert Cray has you’re not short of a classic track or two, and over the course of the night the audience are treated to classics like ‘Poor Johnny’ with its endlessly addictive chorus, ‘phone booth’ and a cracking ‘bad influence’ which concludes with Robert groaning “I don’t wanna talk about it!” It’s drawing this fine line between the obvious joy of the artists on the stage and the very real heartache that informs the songs that makes Robert Cray such a remarkable performer and his music so memorable. There is also the simple fact that when Robert and his band choose (as they do at frequent intervals throughout the set) they rock and songs like ‘chicken in the kitchen’ are as cooking now as they were when first written. If there was any flaw in the set it was simply that the Theatre Royal feels a touch too sterile for a band with such vitality. With the audience entirely seated and ice creams on sale during the interval (ice cream?), the venue felt a sterile environment and it was hard not to feel that somewhere like Rock City would be a far more natural place in which to see such a performer, especially when one considers the extent to which Robert Cray’s music, even at its most sedate, invites movement. That qualm aside, it was a flawless night and Robert and his band were nothing short of spectacular.
When I think back to seeing Robert and his band in action, I will forever remember the humour and passion that the musicians shared on stage, the inventive and powerful drumming of Les, the shuffling dances of Richard and the telepathic link between Dover and the band. It may be called the Robert Cray band, but not only did Robert make sure that each and every artist gain ample time in the spotlight, but also that support act Shawn Jones get the recognition he so richly deserved. In short, Robert Cray and his band put on a remarkable night of entertainment, and whilst the venue was nowhere near as full as it deserved to be, the two standing ovations the band received spoke volumes about how much the audience who were there enjoyed the show. Robert Cray is a blues artist to treasure and he can’t return to these shores soon enough.