Yank: A seven night gig with Clapton gave Cray the confidence to record live. The result is superb.
By Alan Sculley
Fans who have seen the current edition of the Robert Cray Band know that one of the real attractions is to listen to how the four band members play together, support each individual instrument and serve each song. Onstage, the spontaneous chemistry between guitarist and singer Cray, keyboardist Jim Pugh, drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Karl Sevareid is blatantly obvious. But even after having played more than a thousand shows with this lineup, Cray himself has never fully appreciated how his band play together until he started listening to tracks for his new concert CD, Live from Across the Pond.
"There are a lot of things you don't realize that go on when you're performing," Cray says. "I mean, I'm at the microphone and I'm playing guitar, and I hear the support, but then again I don't really hear it because I'm concentrating on what I have to do. It wasn't until I sat down and listened to each one of these tracks and just heard all of us playing together instead of me being a part of it at that particular time. I listened to the bass. I listened to what the bass was doing with the drums. I listened to what the keyboard player was doing with the bass and what the two of them were doing with the drums and what my rhythm was doing with the rest of it. I thought, 'This is pretty funky.'" Cray brings the band to the Mystic Theater on Nov. 13.
Perhaps more than Cray's dozen studio albums, Live from Across the Pond showcases the interplay between the band members. The spare setting of "The One in the Middle," for instance, offers an example of how Sevareid's bass line not only helps anchor the song, but plays off both Cray's guitar runs and Pugh's churchlike organ solo. On "Time Makes Two," the four musicians work off of Hayes' booming beat to gradually build to the song's dramatic finish.
Furthermore, Live from Across the Pond is the first live CD from Cray in a career that now stretches more than 30 years. He formed his first version of the Robert Cray Band in 1974, and with key members of his original band, enjoyed a major commercial breakthrough with the 1986 album Strong Persuader.
With the 1990 CD, Midnight Stroll, Hayes and Pugh joined, while Sevareid replaced long-time bassist Richard Cousins on the 1992 CD, I Was Warned. The core lineup has been together ever since.
The idea of doing a live album was not new to Cray, but previous shows that were recorded just didn't pass muster. One key reason, Cray says, is that when the tape is rolling, he's felt the pressure of delivering a top performance.
"We've had problems with that in the past, trying to just record a single show," Cray says. "For some strange reason, it's a complete psyche-out. You know it in advance and you get all wound up and tight--I'm speaking for myself--and I've even kind of lost my voice in anticipation."
But the band's seven-night-stand opening for Eric Clapton earlier this year at London's Royal Albert Hall offered a way to overcome some of the problems of past recording attempts. For one thing, it eliminated the all-or-nothing pressure of needing to nail a single concert for a live release. Cray said the band members were also focused first and foremost on trying to deliver as Clapton's opening act, and this almost made the recording seem secondary.
Pulling songs from various nights on the seven-show stand, the CD's 14 songs span Cray's entire career. "It's pretty varied with the songs throughout the years," Cray says "So what I had to do was sift through the various versions of songs and pick out what I felt were the best performances of the particular songs. And some of them, night to night, varied and were good in their own ways. It made it kind of difficult.
"But there were little things, like for example, the song 'Our Last Time.' On the CD now, it's the version where Jim Pugh plays a solo on organ, whereas he normally plays it on his piano. Since he played it on the organ, I thought that would be a nice change of pace. So there were little things like that that popped out. Basically, what I was looking for was the performance."
The Robert Cray Band perform on Monday, Nov. 13, at 8pm. Mystic Theater, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $35; all ages. Opening band TBA. 707.765.2121.