Funky for sure
Robert Cray delivers the soulful goods in a casino concert
“Everything will be funky, I promise,” Robert Cray said early in his 90-minute show at the Feather Falls Casino, and he didn’t disappoint, delivering a broad array of his trademark blues ‘n’ soul to a full house of eager fans.
Cray’s is a stylish form of funkiness, however, not so much down and dirty as sweet and soulful and—dare I say it—even sensitive. This has long been the rap against him among blues purists—that his voice is too pretty to be able to really get down—but he’s never let it bother him. And why should it? He’s solidly in a great tradition, that of the Southern soul and R&B singer—think Al Green and Bobby Bland and Sam Cooke—who can also sing a mean blues song.
Cray has a beautifully expressive voice—"cognac over bourbon,” as one critic describes it—that can tease a song until it wants to weep. He’s also an immensely accomplished guitar player who uses his crafty, insinuating solos to underscore the singing with slyly lyrical restatements of tone and theme.
The songs he performs, whether his own or others', also tend to defy easy placement in convenient niches. Sometimes they seem bluesy, sometimes soulful, sometimes almost jazzy, and lyrically they run a post-modern gamut.
Take, for example, one of his biggest hits, “Right Next Door (Because of Me),” off his breakthrough 1986 album, Strong Persuader. Telling a story about a musician who has seduced a fan ("one more notch on my guitar,” he calls her) and then worries that he’s destroyed a relationship ("She’s gonna lose a man who really loves her"), he’s really singing about guilt and regret and the dawning consciousness of his own selfishness. It’s a long way from, say, “The Spider and the Fly,” and yet it’s of a piece.
Cray performed “Right Next Door” this night, along with about 15 other tunes, some old ("Bad Influence,” “Smoking Gun"), some more recent (Mac Rice’s truly funky “Love Sickness” and keyboardist Jim Pugh’s lovely ballad, “Anytime,” off this year’s Shoulda Been Home album). Backed by the crack combo of Pugh, Kevin Hayes on drums and bassist Karl Sevareid, who’ve been playing with him for years, Cray delivered the songs passionately but also a bit too precisely for my taste.
Perhaps I’m spoiled. I caught Cray many times in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when he still regularly came to Chico. That was of course before he won his five Grammy awards or put out any of his gold and platinum records. He played the old Cabo’s nightclub several times a year and always drew a good crowd. He’d do a couple of wicked sets that would have the dance floor pounding and everyone in the crowd joyfully sweating as much as he did on stage.
But this casino booking was a concert, not a club gig, and there was no dance floor, which was frustrating to many in the audience. By concert’s end, they were standing and boogying in front of their chairs or in the aisles, and the urge to shake it loose was almost palpable.
They brought Cray back for a three-song encore, and he cooked, doing his splendidly soulful 1999 tune "Pardon," the bluesy ballad "I’m Going Home," and ending with what may be his biggest hit, "Smoking Gun." Now that’s funky for sure.