Robert Cray has never been justly compared to the likes of Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or other modern blues guitarists of his era. And to take a line from Fats Domino, ain’t that a shame! Continuing to put out one credible blues album after another while appeasing contemporary blues fans and elder purists is difficult. But Cray has done it without breaking much of a sweat. As Art Tipaldi, a noted blues journalist, writes in the liner notes: “Cray single-handedly rejuvenated the blues and proved to the music world that not all young black artists were rappin’ on city street corners.” The ten songs on this compilation “best of” record are a good primer for most of his consistently great albums.
The first track offered to the listener is “Smoking Gun”, with Cray containing enough soul both in his fingers and his voice to translate his point anywhere at any time. A very good guitar solo has Cray standing on the notes rather than blistering through with a series of cliched chords. “My hearts beatin’ just like a drum”, he sings as his strong backing musicians provide ample support. “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” packs less punch as a light reggae hue can be heard behind the “woes me” narrative. Taken from his debut album Strong Persuader and containing the title within the song, the tune isn’t one of his best. Even the solo sounds a bit thin in parts and sounds a bit dated in portions courtesy of Peter Boe’s keyboards.
When Cray is at his best, he blends the soulful Motown sounds of Otis Redding with a contemporary rhythm arrangement. “Bouncin’ Back” is a perfect example of this; Cray baring his soul as a horn section, featuring the legendary Memphis Horns, toots its magic. “I believe it’s a very good sign”, Cray sings before he allows the horns to carry the bridge. Another asset to the track is the bass groove of Richard Cousins. It is probably the highlight of a very good beginning. Nearly all of his albums are represented here on the ten tracks, but only one from his 1988 Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark album is included. “Don’t You Even Care” is perhaps the closest the guitarist will come to resemble a modern B.B. King, following the traditional blues standard down to a tee. Even the guitar solo, while not a clone of King’s, is certainly in the same ballpark.
“Holdin’ On”, written by keyboard player Jim Hugh, resorts to the piano-driven backdrop. Cray plays a moderate leading role here, but his vocals are pushed too far back in the mix in spots. Cray does give some nice solos throughout it, especially in the heart of the song before going back to the verses. The song has the feeling of a Fats Domino arrangement, but Domino couldn’t carry the tune vocally the Cray does, hitting impressive highs. The greatest thing about this song is that, being one of the longer tunes, it’s allowed to evolve into something bigger than its parts. “These Things”, taken from his 1990 album Midnight Stroll, is the type of blues that hits you just about the navel with a simple yet heartfelt mastery of Cray’s guitar being displayed. He also starts wailing as if you never felt it in the opening notes. Or if you were dead!
A curveball on the album appears with the quasi-calypso sound on “I Was Warned”. Having elements of what a blues tango might come off like, Cray speaks the words more than sings them for effect. “Whether they’re right or wrong, at least the mystery is gone”, he says about being done wrong by his woman. Unfortunately it loses whatever momentum it had by the three minute mark, meaning the remainder doesn’t do much until Cray gives one of his better guitar solos three minutes later. “Some Pain, Some Shame” has a better flow and groove as Cray keeps everything in sonic union. He also delivers what is another shining moment of nimble finger picking, hitting the notes with the precision and crispness of David Gilmour. Closing with “You’re Gonna Need Me”, Cray shows why he’ll be even more vital to blues music once B.B. and Buddy are no longer with us.