If you’ve ever bought a ticket to see Eric Clapton and come in late, you’re a dolt. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s what you have to be. As fine as Slowhand’s shows are, more than three-quarters of the time his opening act is just as stellar. Robert Randolph and the Family Band is one example. And on his recent tour, Clapton shared the stage with another terribly underrated and underappreciated artist in Robert Cray. For more than 30 years, Cray has plied his soulful, blues-based craft to critical acclaim. And finally, after several albums and thousands of gigs, he has brought what he does so well in the studio to life on disc, and with no overdubs whatsoever. This release, culled from a seven-night opening slot for Clapton at London’s Royal Albert Hall earlier this year, is a reminder that Cray has oh so much still to give.
To the hoots and hollers of the crowd, Cray and his seasoned crew get introduced and then get down to brass tacks with the mid-tempo, soul-laced “Phone Booth” which name-drops the city of London. It seems to be a very good starter as Cray finds his footing with his intricate and intelligent guitar playing. And his talented cast of keyboardist Jim Pugh, drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Karl Sevareid flesh out the number quite nicely. “Good evening!” Cray exclaims before introducing the crowd to the night’s program. From there, Cray offers up a lighter, almost island-flavored brand of blues during “Poor Johnny”, a new number from Cray’s last studio effort Twenty. Here, Cray yet again delivers the goods, only he branches out much more on this number during the solos.
Cray knows when to slow things down or rev things up, and with “Our Last Time” he does the former effortlessly, taking things nice and slow as he speaks his way into the first few lyrics. Supported by some barroom piano tickling, Cray downplays the song with his guitar notes, perfectly accenting things. From there, it breaks out into a slightly faster pace with a swinging, jazzy backbeat complementing Cray’s pipes. The middle portion is a bit more adventurous with Pugh leading the way with a retro-feel oozing out of his keyboard for a good portion of the eight-minute number. Then once again, things take a slower, smoother and soothing tone with the rhythm and blues-meets-soul of “Right Next Door (Because Of Me)” which is classic Cray. Here he takes things down to a whisper before wrapping things up.
All of the bluesy twists and turns, are what make this album come to life so readily. The old-school blues arrangement fueling “12 Year Old Boy” gives Cray room to strut his guitar wares perfectly. And he does this with all the grace, energy and style that Mr. Clapton has done just as well. Another asset is how this material seems to flow so quickly, with the five or six-minute songs gliding by in two or three. “You know it’s fun,” Cray says as he thanks the crowd for being in their seats a little bit early. And Cray gets what he calls “low down and dirty” for the slow, beautiful and at times hypnotic “The Things You Do To Me”, which brings to mind the likes of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding.
The second disc isn’t that different than the first, with Cray again shining on what is perhaps the highlight, the blues-tango concoction, “I Was Warned”, which has a nice groove running through it. However, even this seems to pale with the politically sparked “Twenty” which deals with a US soldier in Iraq. Thoughtful without being gimmicky or wordy, Cray ideally balances the gravity of the song with the music. It’s the type of song John Mayer would cry out for but will probably never quite capture as nicely. “I’d really like to do my job, but this ain’t the country that I had in mind”, Cray sings as he puts himself in the role of John Q. Soldier. It’s a song that is well worth repeated listens.
After an ordinary run through of “Bad Influence”, Cray gets back on track with the gorgeous “The One In The Middle” that brings out the best in all of the musicians on stage. Pugh and Cray work off each other nicely here. Another highlight has to be the somewhat funky “Back Door Slam” that stays true to the original studio version, while at the same time still finding time to rock out a bit. From there, Cray gets a little bit orchestral and theatrical for the rich, layered “Time Takes Two” that the band plods through deliberately. Overall, this is an album that should turn you onto Cray if you’ve been living somewhere in a cave. If you haven’t, then sit back and enjoy.