Undeniably, Robert Cray’s gifts to the world of music-his innovative and evolutionary guitar playing, his platinum voice, and his eclectic songwriting style that melds modern blues with rock-and-roll, R&B, and soul- continue to enrich.  The 68 year-old multi-Grammy winner is as penetrating and near-perfect in performance now as when he first lit up the national scene, with Strong Persuader, 35 years ago.  Whatever the secret is, Cray owns the patent.

On the Malibu mountainside campus of Pepperdine University, Cray brought his band to the Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts for an intimate Saturday at the 450-seat Smothers Theatre.  Backed only by a large projection screen, colored in alternating light, Cray’s quartet kept its playing equally direct and undecorated.  With Les Falconer on drums, Dover Weinberg on keyboards, and a barefooted Richard Cousins on bass, Cray led the group through a 16-song, career-spanning appearance.

Opening with the jumpy “Anything You Want,” from Cray’s latest, That’s What I Heard, his versatile and ageless voice skillfully rode a swelling melody pierced by his signature Stratocaster stings.  The show, like much of Cray’s catalog, was a study in pacing.  Following up the slow boil of “Move a Mountain” with the already roiling “Hot” was but one couplet of many within the setlist that kept the evening agile and engaging.  Another- the pairing of “I Shiver” with a cover of “Sitting on Top of the World”- was the night’s best juxtaposition of contemporary and vintage, earning Cray the first of several extended ovations from the otherwise modest crowd. 

Punctuating, between songs, bits of band introduction, including referring to Cousins as cool- (Cousins, with a laugh, responding: “And hip.”)- as well as a brief Tom Jones dance prior to and after “You Move Me,” Cray kept his much of his blues lowdown and funky.  And, he did play the song– “Right Next Door (Because of Me)”- though slotting it so late in the 90-minute performance and with little preamble, it was an almost surprising reminder of both Cray’s 1986 hit and of all the inspired work he’s done since. 

While the foursome executed that neo-classic with familiarity and verve, it was on “These Things,” dipping back to 1990’s Midnight Stroll for the first of two encores, that Cray and his three mates showcased everything that makes his timeless work so appealing: resonating and evocative guitar; vocals soaring in falsetto or wailing low in anguish; a swinging and steady rhythm section gracing the edges.  Then, the quartet did it again, on “Time Makes Two,” closing the emotional ride, eliciting one more standing ovation, and keeping safe the healing secret of the blues.