Old Soul, Old Shoe

Robert Cray

At the Lobero Theatre, Friday, November 10.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

Various currents of history run through the veins and fingers of guitarist/singer (or is it singer/guitarist?) Robert Cray, who has played the intimate Lobero Theatre a number of times throughout the years. This time around, his familiarity with the theater created a site-specific resonance, calling back memories of a visit 20 years ago when Cray was a young upstart.

That was then, this is now. But now is also then with Cray, who started out his career playing an already old-school R&B style and has continued in the same vein for 20 years. His music is an old shoe by now, and one that still feels good for dancing, actual and mental.

Cray is also blessed with a solid, long-standing band. Drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Karl Sevareid make as strong and seamless a rhythm section as you’ll find anywhere, and keyboardist Jim Pugh plays unpretentiously into the landscape. One misnomer dogging Cray himself is that he’s a blues artist. In fact, that’s only part of his palette, mostly reflected in his fluid, blue guitar-lick lingo, but with a vocal and groove meter set more on Otis Redding-style soul music. On Friday night, he only played one steamy, slow blues tune (and it jolted the apparently blues-ready crowd to its feet). The rest of his set, largely drawn from his new live album, Live from Across the Pond, relied on a familiar sound, rippling echoes of his career-launching 1986 hit “Smoking Gun” (which he didn’t play on Friday, incidentally).

Cray is one soul man who likes his minor chords. The lion’s share of his songbook works off of minor mode tunes around which he wraps his soulful wail of a voice and his always right-on, sweet but stinging guitar soloing. Friday’s most poignant moment came with his anti-war saga “Twenty,” an emotionally fraught soldier’s tale from Iraq. Here, the sad tension of a minor mode is required fare, and Cray’s crying guitar licks seemed like missives from a pained soul.

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