The rap on Robert Cray is that he’s a bit of a guitar wimp, too willing to settle for a cool soul vibe over fiery, down-and-dirty blues funk. It’s an unfair perception to the extreme, given that he’s shared stages with Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King and held his own night after night. It’s doubtful that those guys would cede the spotlight to someone who’s unworthy.
Live, he can be a monster of dynamics, tearing through flurries of notes, emphatic power chords, and quiet picking. His tone is impeccable and his sense of taste is unfailing. And there’s the rub, the whole taste thing. Over the course of his 19 albums since 1980, Cray often seems content to work in a pop/soul format that sells short his guitar hero skills. To carry out the metaphor just a bit, Cray’s music is sweet potato pie when you’re hungry for a slab of tangy hot ribs.
Cookin’ in Mobile, his third live release in four years, is ultimately a disappointment for just those reasons: When you want him to set a fire he settles for a slow burn, and the result is an album that sells short his power as a live performer. The disc has a number of problems, not the least of which is the notion of diminished expectations. At just 12 songs, it’s too short and Cray seems to have cherry-picked tunes that highlight his soul stylings over heavy-duty guitar workouts.
Blessed with a wonderful voice, Cray has the ability to get down on the mellower tracks like “Love 2009”, but the arrangements meander. “One in the Middle” contains an interminable organ solo that bogs down the middle of the disc and ruins any momentum he might have built up on the funky “Chicken in the Kitchen” and the stinging “Sitting on Top of the World” that immediately precede it.
Not surprisingly, one of his most well-known songs, “Smoking Gun”, is a highlight. Featuring extended soloing from Cray that’s all barbed wire notes and a passionate vocal, the song is a reminder of what this guy is capable of. Unfortunately, the next song, “I Can’t Fail”, falls into a laid-back groove and any sense of urgency is lost, which is emblematic of Cookin’ in Mobile‘s fundamental weakness.
Cray would benefit from taking the same approach as someone like Bruce Springsteen and simply recording all his shows, then finding the best one of the tour and releasing it as a double-disc set. The guy’s a great musician and a compelling guitar player, which comes through in frustrating bits and pieces on this live release. He’s capable of much better.