Robert Cray is still playing (and singing) the blues after 40+ years… and loving it

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By Val Tapia, BADS Contributing Writer

Photo Credit: Turner-Cray Inc

First, I have to give credit where it’s due. When it comes to blues music, my appreciation for it really sparked when two extraordinary guitarists started “making waves”, if you like, in the rock world during the mid-1980s: Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

I don’t think it’s off-base to say that both Cray and Vaughan were pretty much responsible for bringing the blues (albeit with a credible contemporary spin) to a new generation of young rock fans (like me) during that decade.

More importantly,they respected and revered the artists that came before them while clearly putting their own stamp on a form of music that they loved.

In short order, Cray and Vaughan pulled it off perfectly— with pure class and integrity intact.

With The Robert Cray Band’s latest album That’s What I Heard (released in Feb. 2020), Cray wanted to really draw from the entire spectrum of blues, soul, funk, and R&B. To that end, there’s five original tunes written by Cray, while the remainder of the album features the band’s take on some arguably “obscure” songs. In a recent phone chat with Cray, he explained:

“I got together with (producer/drummer) Steve Jordan again after the Hi-Rhythm album (from 2017). We had a great time recording it, so it was a no-brainer to forge ahead with him for That’s What I Heard. It was important to us to be as spontaneous as possible, and let everything flow naturally.”

The album’s opening Cray-penned track Anything You Want sets the tone for the entire record, as any great opening song should. It indeed sounds like the band had a ball recording it. It’s also served (off and on) as the band’s opening number on Cray’s recent live shows.

Going back in time, I asked Cray what was the first album he ever bought as a young music fan. Inevitably, that followed with his first concert as well, which was a pivotal moment for him.

“Well, the first album I ever bought was Are You Experienced? by, of course, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. I was 15 or 16 years old, and not long after, one of my first “real” rock concerts I saw was The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1968.”

For years, it’s been stated that if one was a teenager during any point between 1968 and 1973, that person grew up during the greatest time of the rock era. No exceptions— so they say.

Of course, I had to ask Cray if he concurred.

“Hmmm… like I said, I did see Jimi Hendrix during that time, so I’m going to say…yes, I agree with that sentiment too”, Cray said with a laugh.

He continued. “I remember I had upper-level nosebleed seats, and I had this cheap little camera with me and took a few pictures. Looking back, it was pretty pathetic taking pictures from that far back in the venue. It was pointless, but it was a show I will never forget”, Cray said proudly.

With over twenty studio albums to his name, one might ask how challenging is it to put a set list together at this point?

“We consistently drop and add a few songs most nights”, Cray stated. “It’s been that way for years. If I’m being honest, I find it boring to stick with the exact same set list night after night. I certainly don’t knock anyone for doing that, it’s just not something me or the band prefer.”

“For this round of shows (on the tour), I imagine we’ll be playing about four songs from the new album. While I don’t want to give away too much, we’ll throw in some songs that we haven’t played for some time as well. Whatever we have to do to keep the show as fresh and as fun as possible, we’ll do it”, Cray said.

Given that Cray has played the Phoenix area over a dozen times during his 40+ years in music, I asked if he has any cool memories of those shows.

“I remember playing the Celebrity for the first time during the Strong Persuader tour in I think early 1987. I looked out at the huge parking lot and noticed someone’s tour bus. It was none other than the legendary (guitarist) Albert Collins…who showed up to see our show! It was then that I knew we had “made it”. And we haven’t stopped since!

The Robert Cray Band is scheduled to perform at Celebrity Theatre this Thur. Jan. 26, 2023. Tickets are priced between $30 and $75 and available at celebrity theatre.com.

Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Showtime at 7:30 p.m

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