Contemporary blues guitarist Robert Cray is best known for his breakthrough album from 1986, “Strong Persuader,” which featured the Billboard top 25 hit “Smoking Gun.”
Combining electric blues with elements of pop, rock and smooth jazz, Cray’s soulful, easy-on-the-ears sound crossed over to the mainstream and scored him a Grammy.
Cray’s two most recent studio albums show he’s still in fine musical form. He’s also exhibiting a social consciousness. “Time Will Tell” and “Twenty” are laced with antiwar commentary. “The current events took us to those places ... we had to write those,” notes Cray.
“Live from Across the Pond” is Cray’s latest effort and first-ever live recording. The 54-year old Georgia native is back on the road with longtime band members Jim Pugh on keyboards, Karl Sevareid on bass and Kevin Hayes on drums.
Why did you wait so long in your career to do a live album?
I never liked what we had recorded live before. Some of the performances had been good, but not enough of them were. I thought my voice was too tight sounding, and we seemed too aware of being recorded and trying to make sure everything was right. Finally, what we did was tape our seven shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall with Eric Clapton in `06. Our main purpose was to gain some new fans, being the opening act, so we were more relaxed. We changed the set list every night and were in the same building with a great sound system.
Why have the blues stayed so popular all these years?
It’s the subject matter; it’s therapeutic music. You tell stories that other people can relate to, whether it’s about relationships, having a hard time making ends meet or what’s going on in terms of current events. It’s those types of things and the groove that goes with it. I like to say that most songs that anybody sings are the blues. Any popular “Mary getting her heart broken by Johnny” song - that’s the blues. It’s how it’s sung, the conviction behind it and how raw it gets. In the raw form, it touches the nerves and really means something.
You did a bunch of work in the studio and onstage with the great John Lee Hooker. What was it like working with him?
We worked with the same booking agency and first played with him at a concert at a university in Montana. I hadn’t meet John Lee before, and we were opening for him. John was going to join us during our set, and we had never rehearsed together. He comes out and starts playing, and we scrambled to find out what key he was playing in, and then it was: “Wait, we missed that (chord) change because he wasn’t playing the standard 12-bar blues.”
After we fumbled a bit, we kept our ears wide open. Over the years, we became great friends and did a lot of dates together. His band could follow that man to the end of the earth. They could stop on a dime and go backwards and forwards.
Your type of blues often gets dismissed by purists as being too commercial and not authentic enough. What are your thoughts about the naysayers?
When we were getting really out there on the scene, we always heard the negative comments: “You’re just a rock band, not a real blues band.” “Bluenatics” I called them. People want the blues one certain way, which is fine if you’re fans of one type of music. But there is so much more music out there.
So what would your choices for five essential discs you’d take to a desert island?
Howlin Wolf - something with “Smokestack Lightning” on it. Johnny Taylor, “Raw Blues.” O.V. Wright, “Nucleus of Soul.” Billie Holiday - something by Billie has to be in there. Bobby (Blue) Bland, “Two Steps from the Blues.”