Can “Young Bob,” who slyly boasted about being a “Strong Persuader,” the proverbial back door man, be turning 50?
Well, the good news is that Robert Cray hasn’t lost any of the original slant on blues and R&B that made his early-’80s rise such a breath of fresh air, and he wears his maturity well. “You take a little school boy and teach him who to hate,” he sings over the push-pull rhythm of this set’s opener, “Survivor,” “Then you send him to the desert for the oil near Kuwait. You try to change a world that you don’t understand.” A far cry from the character waiting in the shadows for his married girlfriend’s porchlight to signal that the coast is clear, the song ends with the sound of marching footsteps.
Is the blues world ready for a politically outspoken Robert Cray? Well, it’s clear he’s aching to break out of blues stereotypes, lyrically and musically, so why not test political waters, too?
After about eight albums produced by Dennis Walker and/or Bruce Bromberg, Cray has been in the driver’s seat for his last few outings, but he stuck close to the formula that brought him success – soul singing and blues guitar over Southern R&B chord structures.
Having gone about as far as he could in that direction, he and co-producer (and longtime keyboardist) Jim Pugh shake things up here. Track 2, “Up In The Sky,” features Robert on electric sitar, with the addition of the Turtle Island String Quartet, on some quirky but sophisticated melodic pop.
Elsewhere, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson and saxophonist Jerry Martini (Sly & The Family Stone’s former horn section) flesh things out, and Cray’s rhythm section of bassist Karl Sevareid and drummer Kevin Hayes continue to prove they’re among the best in the business. (And this time, Hayes contributes two songs co-written with his prolific sister, Bonnie.)
In spots, Cray’s guitar has a more lush sound than his typical staccato flurries and slightly nasal tone (the extra reverb on “Lotta Lovin’” is a welcome tonal variation), but I still wish he’d plug in a Tele or a Les Paul or a 335 for a change of pace. His Strat gets into some spirited fisticuffs with Pugh’s organ, however, on another anti-war directive, the gospel-tinged “Distant Shore” (this one penned by Pugh). And Cray’s somber closer, “Time Makes Two,” features some Curtis Mayfield-esque arpeggios, with the guitar chiming like the tolling of church bells. Doubtless the most ambitious album in Cray’s catalog.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.