In 2017, ageless wonder Robert Cray looks and sounds almost exactly like the man who first came to the mainstream consciousness in 1986 with his fifth album, Strong Persuader. Backed by bassist Richard Cousins, keys man Dover Weinberg and drummer Terrence Clark at the Midland Theatre, Cray barreled through a no-nonsense, 90-minute set of material that spanned from earliest hits such as “Smoking Gun” through “Aspen, Colorado” from this year’s Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm.
Cray still has a tone that’s all his own, which he coaxes from his instrument without showboating. He simply takes a step back from the mic and lets it rip. Eyes closed, sometimes mouthing the notes a split second before they come through his fingers; other times, pursing his lips and moving his head from side to side, Cray seamlessly executes rhythm and lead parts and leaves no gap unfilled.
And when he steps back up, Cray’s smooth voice is as identifiable an instrument as his guitar, capable of moaning baritone and crying falsetto and with emotional vibrato at work at every stop in between.
If you didn’t know Cray, you’d think he was three decades younger. He’s the only 64-year-old who can refer to himself as “Young Bob,” and not sound ridiculous doing so.
The band dressed casually in jeans and untucked, button-down shirts; Cray in open sandals, Cousins, as ever, dreadlocked and barefoot. The sound was exceptionally loud and just as clear, every instrument easily discernible, with the subtleties of Clark’s fills – rendered with sticks, brushes and mallets – as much a part of the music as Weinberg’s many solos.
Banter was minimal but good-natured—Cray’s fond of shouting “Thank you so! Let’s go like this!” between numbers. The guitarist gave an exaggerated wink to the audience after claiming authorship of “Sitting on Top of the World,” delivered as a slow, grinding blues, and came to a dead stop amid the rip-roaring instrumental “Hip Tight Onions” to continue a long-running gag about his guitar tech, X-A-Q (pronounced “Zach”), who was supposed to be invisible to the crowd as he brought a new guitar to Cray every couple of songs.
As tight and supple a four piece as you’re likely to see, the Robert Cray Band can stop on a dime at a signal from their lead’s right hand, and slowly take the music down to almost nothing, Cray’s licks getting quieter and quieter, such as on a late-show “Right Next Door (Because of Me).” As the music faded, the theater grew so hushed one could hear other concertgoers breathing while the guitarist ran out the string, creeping ever more closely to silence.
Like the quintessential bluesman he is, Cray sung of heartache on “I Shiver,” of a cheater getting his comeuppance on “Poor Johnny,” of unrequited fidelity on “You Had My Heart” and of the redemptive power of love on “Time Makes Two.”
But unlike many bluesmen before and since, Cray managed to take an often-repetitive genre and infuse it with something unique and uniquely timeless. In the process, he continued his career-long quest to remake one of American music’s oldest traditions without wiping away the qualities that make it so impactful in the first place.