Some of us, some time in our life, need to tread on sacred ground in some form or another. Go on a sabbatical, find God, get in touch with the origin to fully understand your past and lessen the possibility of making a fool of yourself in the future. There are lots of fools these days. Jumpin’ around on your music television, selling themselves alongside a product. Ask them where the musical influence comes from and I betcha it won’t extend more than 20 or 30 years. The immediate influence drowns out the history, one genre change after another. Popular culture taught us that Elvis fathered rock and roll, when it was happening decades before his pelvic thrust developed. It goes farther back, to just plain folks. There’s even a famous folktale about a certain father of the blues dealing with the devil at the crossroads during one full moon, a soul in exchange for eternal influence. Mali guitarist Ali Farke Toure claims that his traditional blues licks have existed with his people for centuries. There are styles born from the delta, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, but most essentially from the soul—a truly individual birthplace where the story has a certain familiarity, as its teller knows the map of music and can guide you with trust. Therefore, trust someone with deep roots.
A man like Robert Cray is solid growth, with three decades under his belt, most of that battling any compromise of the blues. During the ’70s in the Washington-Oregon area, he dabbled in psychedelic funk until a backing gig for Albert Collins in Eugene provided a more stable direction. It wasn’t until 1980, when Cray struck a deal with Tomato Records to release Who’s Been Talkin’ that his ball finally got rolling. Albums on Hightone followed, including a joint release with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland on Alligator Records called Showdown. But it was Cray’s Strong Persuader LP that resulted in commercial success, as with other roots rock bands The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Los Lobos during the cultural drought of ‘86. It was safe to dust off the old Strat, pawn the BC Rich and get back to the basics of music: honoring your influences. Cray connected with American folklore and became embraced.
A few Grammy statues on the mantle might be validation of Cray’s hard work, but it must prove dearer to his heart to play with the likes of John Lee Hooker, BB King, Clapton and The Memphis Horns. The influence of the blues continues to evolve beyond our borders and extend worldwide. The current strain of roots musician is no longer searching out the “ultimate deal” with the ultimate big time label. Smaller labels with equal credibility are housing the cream of the crop. Robert Cray staked his claim several years ago with veteran independent label Rykodisc, and his latest effort, Shoulda Been Home, shows no signs of compromise in any form. The recent release is quite stunning. The Robert Cray Band pulls out all the stops and pays homage to that certain soul grit and swagger made famous by Memphis label Stax, residence of a much overlooked legacy of artists like Otis Redding, Booker T & the MG’s, Rufus Thomas and The Staples Singers. Shoulda Been Home is a showcase of Cray’s humble offering rather than that of a hotshot guitar slinger. Spacious production allows all instruments to shine and a natural chemistry to flow, sweet and midnight sounding. A combination of Al Green inspired soul delivery along with Cray’s traditional blues delivery provides the innovation. Nothing too freaky—no drum machines, no possible euro dance mixes. It’s all that is relevant to the organic sound provided by electric guitars. A quote from an article in Blues Review magazine proves Cray knows where it’s at. He questions, upon hearing a guitarist bashing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” if the Vaughan impressionist was even aware of the origin of the tune via Buddy Guy. It was more of a musing and less of a critique, considering Cray contributed to a Vaughan tribute, but it’s a pretty important statement during times like these. Know your history. Robert Cray knows his.
The Robert Cray Band plays the Historic Wilma Theatre Sunday, Sept. 9 at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $31.50 in advance.