Robert Cray plays The Egg in Albany on January 13. Image provided.
Robert Cray is the trusty sweater lodged in the back of your closet. You know, the one that’s outlasted several presidential administrations, spouses/lovers, and automobiles.
Although this sweater may be comfortable as a second skin and warm as the living-room hearth, it inevitably gets overlooked next to the newer, flashier denizens of the wardrobe.
That Cray’s soulful, pleading vocals and effortless facility on the Telecaster tend to get taken for granted is largely down to longevity: Cray’s band, has recorded 19 albums since its 1980 debut on Mercury, Who’s Been Talking.
Another reason may be that Cray sometimes gets short shrift by blues purists turned off by the slick production on some of his more popular records, such as the 1986 breakthrough Strong Persuader
But for those who may have lost track of Cray since his days as a young lion, it may be time for a reappraisal. His latest offering, Live from Across the Pond
, is the maiden release on his own Nozzle Records, as well as the first live album in the Cray oeuvre.
This 14-song set was recorded last summer over seven nights in London at Royal Albert Hall while supporting Eric Clapton. The extended residency released Cray and his band from the pressure of performing under all-or-nothing working conditions.
“In the past, we only had one shot to try to be perfect. I’d get so nervous, sometimes I’d even lose my voice,” Cray confessed.
The current aggregation of Cray’s band, including Jim Pugh on keyboards, Kevin Hayes on drums, and Karl Sevareid on bass, has been together since the mid-1990s, and the quartet’s cohesion is evident on the new record.
“We mixed up the set list every night, and most of the time we weren’t even thinking about being recorded,” Cray says.
Once back in the studio, Cray selected the songs based more on performance than precision. The only technical embellishment to the recording was a touch of slapback echo.
“The surprises were in the fact that we did something a little different each time with every song,” the singer-guitarist says. “I’d be listening to the tapes and thinking ‘Wow, this band sounds pretty damn good!’”
The sense of spontaneity that pervades Live from Across the Pond
is a result of the band’s resistance to habit.
“We avoid set lists and just call out the songs (and solos) on stage,” Cray explains. “Sometimes it works great and there will be a great solo or sometimes it leaves too much dead space. You never know how it’s going to turn out.”
On stage, the telepathy from years of shared experience manifests itself as a willingness to take chances. The improvisational interplay, particularly between Cray and Pugh is particularly dazzling, often lending songs a labyrinthine, jazzy quality.
If you’ve lost touch, the time may be ripe to rediscover Robert Cray and his blues/soul stew.
The Robert Cray Band will perform on January 13 at 8pm at the Egg in Albany. (518) 473-1845; www.theegg.org