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Deeply soulful: Cray at the Egg.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

I Guess He Showed Us

By Erik Hage

Robert Cray Band

The Egg, Jan. 13

 

For the uninitiated, and for those who primarily remember him from the bluesy, snaky guitar figure of his 1986 signature hit “Smoking Gun,” there are a lot of misconceptions that need to be dispelled regarding Robert Cray. I will certainly address a few, but anyone who witnessed Saturday night’s set by Cray and his band already gets my drift, for the group simply tore apart expectations and offered up a stunning set of dynamic electric soul.

Which brings me to the first misconception: Robert Cray as “slick, modern bluesman.” Cray is an extraordinary guitarist in both his solo phrasing and, even more prominently, in his rhythmic sensibilities. Slashing away at his signature Strat, his rapid-fire, cutting rhythms stitched the pocket for the first two numbers, “I Guess I Showed Her” and “I Shiver.”

Cray comes off most prominently as a soul musician in the deep-soul tradition of the South. It comes out in his vocals and songwriting, and it even comes out in his guitar playing, whether he’s worrying out a soulful lead, cutting away at a rhythmic bed for his blessed pipes, or slashing high up the neck in an almost formless guitar storm of emotional fragmentation.

The latter was on display in the desperate antiwar ballad “Twenty.” Cray seemed to reach an emotional crest of sadness, loss, despair and betrayal with the lyrics, and just when the tune seemed to have spiraled to the top of its statement, Cray fell away from singing and bluesy soloing—neither statement adequate for where he wanted to go next—and came down on the guitar in a wild maelstrom of strumming that kicked the emotional dynamics into a new stratosphere.

The next misconception is that there is some kind of yuppie polish to what Cray does, and this seems to stem from his Grammy-winning ’80s era and the slickly produced Strong Persuader (which has more to do with ’80s production in general). Seen live, it’s actually clear that Cray has a certain primeval rawness and wildness in his ethos, whether it’s the between-song buzz and hiss from his Matchless and Vibro-king amps (the raw fidelity of a bygone era) or his sometimes jabby, perfectly imperfect leads.

The three men in his band (longtime Cray colleagues) were all business, and worked at it like top tradesmen. Keyboardist Jim Pugh offered emotional washes for Cray to ply his stuff against and occasionally grabbed the spotlight himself with a solo, while Karl Sevareid steered nimble bass lines through the groove, his bass neck often seeming like a waving ballast.

And that would lead us to another misconception: Cray as solo artist. For this was very much the Robert Cray Band at work, turning the Hart theater inside out with a juggernaut of electric soul. I believe you can learn a lot about a band by the way they carry themselves onstage before the first song, and Cray and band took to the boards on the balls of their feet, like John Barrymore having at Hamlet or playoff champs kicking off a new season.

The four-piece had a visually stripped-down appeal—just four men and some cabinets and wires, with little in the way of dress or lighting. The one concession to anything but grit seemed to be Cray, short-sleeved in indigo and exuding levity between songs.

The only misstep of the eve came when Cray worked a sitar-like guitar sound through (what I imagine is) some kind of Roland space echo. The weird washes and the generally new-agey pop spirituality of the song itself were a temporary lapse in momentum before Cray fell back to the guitar and tones he rode in on.


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