It was a good night to be blue Saturday, as five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray and his band rocked the South Shore Room at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.
Backed by Richard Cousins (bass), Les Falconer (drums), and Dover Weinberg (keys), Cray strode onstage to cheers and applause, with a beautiful ash-colored Fender Stratocaster slung around his neck.
“Good evening,” Cray boomed out by way of introduction. “Last night we were the Beatles, tonight, we are the Yardbirds.”
“Not the Yardbirds,” Falconer groaned behind him.
“You don’t want to be the Yardbirds?” Cray asked, appearing genuinely puzzled. “How about the Kinks? We’ll be the Kinks. OK.”
“Robert Cray Band,” someone shouted from the crowd.
“Alright, we’ll be the Robert Cray Band,” Cray roared, jumping into the tune “Bad Influence,” about being led astray by an irresistible dame.
This was my first time seeing Cray and company perform, and it was a delight. The accomplished bluesman has a wonderful voice, full of passion and expression, and he covers the full range from low-register growls to the highest falsettos.
I also found myself appreciating his understated guitar style. Cray is not a particularly flashy or aggressive player, but favors a more flavorful approach, with lots of Albert King-like bends and rhythmic, shuffling licks. His picking doesn’t aim to over-awe, or to put itself distinctly out in front of the rest of the groove. After seeing just one show, it’s clear that Robert Cray Band is very much about the band, not just the leader.
The quartet rolled out a number of blues classics, numbers like “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and “Sitting on Top of the World,” which featured an excellent piano solo from Weinberg. Other tunes ran the gamut from the fun and playful “Chicken in the Kitchen” to the dark and sinful “It’s Because Of Me.”
My favorite tune of the evening was “On the Road Down,” a moody, shuffling tune reminiscent of Otis Redding, which Cray introduced as “this little funky thing.” Weinberg laid down some mellow but insistent organ, with the occasional xylophone tinkling above, as Cray softly strutted on his Strat and crooned out the lonesome lyrics.
Cray and his crew were quite enjoyable to watch. The frontman’s laid-back, appreciative vibe mixed well with his fellow musicians’ mellow enthusiasm, Weinberg offering up a shy smile after loud cheers for an organ solo, and Cousins occasionally breaking into a series of small, rapid hops. The group’s fifth member, sound tech Xaq, was working hard, switching out Cray’s Strats for a tuning between each song, and receiving a playful razzing from the guitarist whenever he was a step or two behind.
The South Shore Room crowd looked to be having a fantastic evening, constantly cheering and catcalling, and frequently rising to its feet at the end of a song. There were obviously many diehard fans in attendance, with lots of people singing along with their favorite tunes. Cray engaged the audience in a few call and response sessions, calling “whoa – oh –oh” back and forth before launching into (surprise), a song about his woman leaving.
It occurred to me during show that, while timeless in essence, the blues increasingly have a throwback feel these days. Cray was singing “Phone Booth,” about seeing a lady’s phone number penned on the wall of a public telephone stall (obviously a rough moment); antiquated imagery aside, the sheer simplicity of the music struck me.
While the songs are generally about difficult and complex situations, the themes that they reflect seem so simple: lost flames and unrequited passion, the joy of making love, the pain and fury aroused by cheating hearts. They felt familiar and warm, with smoothly worn edges, like an old sitcom.
It was a comforting notion. Many thanks to Robert Cray and his band for an excellent performance with a vintage feel.
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