16th May 2014
On a sultry evening in downtown Manchester in proximity to both the magnificent renovated central library and the beginning of the intellectual hub on Oxford Road which houses the largest student campus in western Europe, Robert Cray and the band strolled into town for their own distinctive and utterly compelling brand of soul-blues. Cray is a musician now celebrating his fortieth anniversary as a professional and along the way has soaked up the seminal gospel-blues influence of Ray Charles and southern soul-blues legend Bobby Bland as well as the 1970s deep soul sound of the Hi label with artists of the calibre of Al Green, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright.
In the case of Robert Cray, the emotional impact of the gospel-tinged voice has been allied with secular lyrics and together this makes for a potent alchemy of sounds, which in the process has created a distinctive voice that is instantly recognisable. What is sometimes undervalued is the sheer quality of his song writing skills. However, it is the blues that is very much Robert Cray’s trade and the guitar influences of B.B. and Freddie King are immediately identifiable.
The pared down line-up (no horns sadly on this occasion) was made up of long-time bassist Richard Cousins, drummer Les Falconer who joined last year and multi-keyboardist Dover Weinberg who played with Cray first time round back in the 1970s and here alternated between Hammond organ and acoustic/electric piano. Cray excels on the minor blues numbers his storytelling craft comes to the fore and it is here that the soulfulness in his voice is on full display, the antithesis of much of today’s manufactured pop-soul and, early on in the set, laid down an emotionally charged rendition of ‘Two Steps from the end’ which harked back to the riff-laden soul and blues grooves of the mid-late 1960s. By three numbers in, the band were well and truly settled and a de facto jam groove was underway. Key to the overall band sound is the telepathy that exists between Cray and Cousins and on ‘Right next door’ the bass line riff laid down was more than matched by some intricate rhythm guitar work from the leader. Ideally, one would have liked to hear more of Cousin’s bass prowess with a solo or two, but the collective sound is what Cray’s band strives to achieve and a very find sound it is at that.
Robert Cray first came to international prominence with the 1983 album ‘Bad Influence’, with 1987’s ‘Strong Persuader’ cementing his reputation in Europe and a rapid follow up, ‘Don’t be afraid of the dark’, a year later further reinforcing the message. The early 1990s was a period of both consolidation and evolution, if not revolution, for the leader with a new line-up and a deliberate attempt to move away from mainstream blues and towards R & B and soul. It is from this stage in his career that Cray truly began to interweave the separate, yet complimentary musical styles. By 1997 he had engaged the Memphis Horns who had graced many an epic Stax and Hi label album and on that year’s ‘Sweet Potato Pie’ recording delivered a cover of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s ‘Trick or Treat’ that was both funky and soulful in equal measure on the 1999 album ‘Take your shoes off’. By the early part of the new century, southern soul hues were once again permeating the overall sound on the 2001 album ‘Shoulda’ been home’. This has continued more recently with the two excellent Provogue albums, ‘Nothin’ but love’ from 2012 and this year’s ‘In my soul’, both of which songs were in part exploited here.
Infidelity and forsaken love are just two of the subject matters that Robert Cray plies his trade in, invariably depicting low-life characters at nocturnal hours, and this is where listening to the deep, southern soul singers of the calibre of Ann Peebles has exerted its greatest influence upon Cray’s work. Throughout the varied and carefully selected set of tempos kept the concert from ever becoming predictable and for a lovely change of mood, Cray delivered a soulful ballad, ‘I was fine yesterday’ that would have sat comfortably on any Al Green album on the Hi label from the early-mid 1970s.
An interesting recent development in Cray’s song writing range has arisen with the leader now into his early sixties and a song that deals with the thorny subject of death and mortality.This was in fact a thought provoking part of the evening that Cray wisely decided to incorporate towards the end of the concert before setting off on an extended jam riff that left the audience to ponder the lyrics without in any way ever sounding too preachy. Returning to his staple terrain of male-female relationships and in this specific case, potential female infidelity, ‘Chicken in the Kitchen’ rounded off matters just nicely.
An encore was par for the course with the greatly appreciative audience and the band took us on a retro Booker T and the MGs inspired journey with the superb instrumental ‘Hip Tight Onions’ on which keyboardist Weinberg showed off his tastiest hammond organ licks and was well schooled in the Jimmy Smith and Booker T. Jones approach to the instrument, both clearly discernible on this uptempo number. A laid back second song, ‘Your love means more to me than gold’, was the ideal way to end the evening and the audience took to its feet once again to applaud a consummate musician and one who looks remarkably and, perhaps, surprisingly well preserved for his extended period on the blues scene.
To start off the evening’s proceedings, singer-songwriter Azadeh delivered a relatively short five song solo act, performing both on a variety of guitars and on keyboards, and emphasizing her own Persian roots (born in London to Iranian parents) as an inspiration for much of her music with the singer-songwriter influences of P.J. Harvey, Jeff Buckley as well as Nina Simone and possibly Emmylou Harris discernible. After a somewhat tentative beginning, the singer settled down and gained in confidence, creating a friendly rapport with the audience who appreciated her efforts and excelled towards the end on keyboards which may just be her forte. Azadeh is still very much in the process of creating her own distinctive sound and that is all the more necessary in the already over-saturated area of singer-songwriter where individuality is par for the course and an essential requirement for a long-term presence. Azadeh will shortly be releasing her first solo album, following on from her first single release (see twitter Azadeh@azadeh.music).