Concert Review- Robert Cray Band, Bankhead Theater, Livermore, CA 11/7/12
Legend has it that “Young Bobby” (as he called himself on “Strong Persuader”) Cray approached blues legend Albert King at a Seattle gig and asked for an apprenticeship of sorts, a kind of Blues residency. Albert schooled the talented guitarist and singer, and the rest, as they say, is history ( although as Patterson Hood points out, sometimes legend is more instructive). Cray would soon be releasing his breakout ” Strong Persuader” CD, with the now-classic title ” Right Next Door ( Because of Me)” and ” Smoking Gun”, and treating audiences to his trademark stinging guitar and smooth, rangy voice. Robert did a memorable tour playing alongside Eric Clapton that is available on DVD, and recorded a popular duet with B.B. King, ” Playin’ With My Friends”. If you’re stumbling through the cut-out bin, you might come across ” Showdown”, a great threesome with Cray, Albert King, and Johnny Copeland ( Shamekia’s daddy) that includes the Cray favorite ” She’s Into Something”. Robert has continued to make strong recordings that include various flavors of blues, from Memphis to Chicago to Texas, and often showcase the gorgeous high register of his voice, which sometimes gets lost in concert. His new CD, ” Nothin’ But Love”, includes a wide range of blues and R and B, and ventures beyond his well-known penchant for songs of infidelity and heartbreak to mature themes of parenting ( “Worry”) and the displaced male blue collar worker in the global economy ( ” I’m Done Cryin'”).
Yet, some fans still say, ” He’s never done another record like ” Strong Persuader”, and trot out the ” he’s much better live than on record” cliche.That’s only because his live shows are so great! I saw this gig while scouting on pollstar.com for a good weekend to hit San Francisco . Strangely, though the show had been announced for several weeks, there would be no Bob Uecker seats for me!
The Bankhead is a tiny venue in upscale suburban Livermore that apparently trends to theater productions, and the audience seemed to include a number of subscribers who might have thought they were out for the symphony. Regrettably, the stage configuration at the Bankhead had the band set up a mid-range jumpshot back from the edge of the stage, leaving a literal gap between the audience and the band, as if at any moment a group of aging hipsters would rush the stage and start dancing like they were back on “Shindig” or ” Hullabaloo”. Not here, not tonight!
Robert brought along his fine band, with longtime members keyboardist Jim Pugh and barefoot bassist Richard Cousins, along with newcomer Tony Braunagel on the skins. He moved easily from crowd-pleasing classics ” Right Next Door”, “Smoking Gun”, “Don’t You Even Care?”, and “Phone Booth”, to new tunes including “Won’t Be Comin Home”, “Side Dish”, and “Sadder Days”. Robert was in fine voice, and the band tightly pushed him along through selections he seemed to announce on the spot. Pugh was particularly stellar, adding organ flourishes to Cray’s biting chords.
Robert was more engaged with the audience than I’d ever seen him, admitting that the band had played Beatles numbers at the soundcheck ( an early idol was George Harrison) and teasing that they might do one onstage, ” then again, maybe not” ( too bad, they didn’t). When an apparently still-grieving Tea Bag Hag abused the between-songs silence to cry out in anguish, ” I hate taxes “, Cray hilariously turned the scene on its head by responding, ” Not me. I love Texas…. Austin, Houston..”, as he pumped his arms in a dancing motion. He later played out the gag when introducing Braunagel ” from Houston, Taxes” !
The encore concluded with an impassioned ” I’m Done Cryin’ “, with its sorrowful tale of outsourced jobs, foreclosures, and dispossessed families. Cray wrung the searing slow blues notes from his Fender as his voice went from growl to whisper to wail, all rendered at the grinding pace of poverty . John Mayall used to say that the slow blues were hardest, because ” you can hear all the mistakes”. Robert fearlessly played this finale out slowly, leaving the stage on a thoughtful, reflective note. The blues had made the suburbs, alright, if only for a night.
(Thanks to Hizzoner for expanding the geographic conditions of Phledge’s release to cover this show… as he says, if only for a night! –Ed. )