What’s That Sound?
By Peter Gerstenzang
For a man who’s got the blues, Robert Cray is actually a pretty chipper dude. Cray will be singing and slicing off some of his trademark sizzling guitar solos at The Tarrytown Music Hall, on Wednesday.
He tells funny stories, laughs easily and seems to have a firm, flexible grip on life. In fact, he’s warm and friendly enough to be your best buddy. That is, if your best buddy got to solo on an Eric Clapton album, kick it with Chuck Berry and been credited with helping to revive America’s truest, most-authentic musical art form.
“I think I may have played there before,” said Cray, recently. “I play so many gigs, it’s not always easy to remember. I’ll know for sure, when I’m in the dressing room. The way it looks, how it smells. That’s how I know if I’ve been there.”
Cray, if you’re familiar with his fine, bluesy art, has been there-and back.
For the uninitiated, a brief history.
Born and bred in Virginia, Robert Cray began making noise in the late ‘70s in the Pacific Northwest, along with longtime buddy, Curtis Salgado. Around that time, he also could be seen playing bass behind ‘Otis Day,’ in a little film called Animal House. There was a big, ever-growing buzz around this young, hunky bluesman and he was soon signed to Mercury Records. In 1986, Cray blew up with the album Strong Persuader, which improbably (for a blues album), spun off the hit single Smokin’ Gun. Many hit albums and big tours followed. Cray bonded with Eric Clapton (which later resulted in their white-hot version of Bo Diddley’s Before You Accuse Me). Then there was that performance of Brown-Eyed Handsome Man in the Chuck Berry documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll. Wherein, Cray makes the coolest 3-minute mission mtatement ever about the upward mobility of African-Americans. With an irresistible backbeat and a wicked guitar solo.
It seems that even Berry, the notoriously testy genius who just happened to invent Rock and Roll, took a friendly interest in young Cray.
“When we were rehearsing with the band (which was lead by Rolling Stone Keith Richards), everybody had a couple of songs they had to learn. Things were pretty loose and nobody knew who was going to sing what of Chuck’s,” said Cray. “One day, Eric came up to me and said, ‘Robert, how do you rate?!’ It seems that I was penciled in for more songs than anybody else on the bill. Chuck really liked me, apparently. Which, if you know him, is, uh, pretty unusual.”
Cray laughs, realizing he’s been picking these particular words with care.
Since the 80s, he has done what all the greats do: record regularly, tour relentlessly. Since he’s essentially, if not exclusively, a bluesman, how does he manage to keep his records fresh year-after-year? After all the form is thrilling, but doesn’t always allow for huge melodic departures.
“The thing is, I’ve always loved and listened to lots of different kinds of music,” he said. “There’s jazz and reggae and straight-ahead rock. Also, there’s Jimi Hendrix. When I first heard him, I thought he was leading a three-piece band from outer space. Jimi showed what you can do when you have a blues background, but also like other genres.”
Cray keeps tabs on his genre, however. And he’s very excited by a ‘kid’ in Austin named Gary Clark Jr.
“I’ve seen him a couple of times and he just knocks me out,” said this veteran. “He plays the blues, but he mixes Hip Hop and soul with it. You should’ve seen me and (musician) Keb’ Mo’ watching a performance of Gary’s one day, on an iPhone, standing on a stage somewhere. We were blown away. He’s really revitalizing the whole genre. Just like my pal, Shemekia Copeland. The blues is in good hands right now.”
As for his own hands, Cray, whose most recent release was the live 2010 CD/DVD, Cookin’ In Mobile, says he hopes to go into the studio soon and produce something fresh and new ASAP.
“In the meantime,” said the guitarist proudly, “most of my stuff is still in print. And a lot of it has been re-issued on vinyl: ‘Bad Influence,’ ‘Strong Persuader,’ ‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark.’ It feels really nice. There’s nothing as good as knowing that your stuff holds up. That the music you make is really built to last.”
Info: The Robert Cray Band will be at The Tarrytown Music Hall on February 22nd. The show begins at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $39, $50 and $65. For more information call 914-631-3390 or go to tarrytownmusichall.org