American singer/guitarist Robert Cray, who this month turned 60, is an old-fashioned kind of artist.
And that’s a good thing.
The Georgia-born musician specializes in blues-soul music solidly rooted in the 1960s. His voice is a burnished instrument, influenced by the raw silkiness of such vocalists as Sam Cooke, O.V. Wright and the recently departed Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Last night at Alix Goolden Hall (which was absolutely sweltering), Cray launched immediately into Phone Booth, an up-tempo tune about a lonely soul who calls a number scratched on a phone booth. His guitar solos sounded effortless; the crowd was immediately on side. Cray favours a terse, clean guitar style; his heroes include Steve Cropper and Albert Collins.
“Hello, ya doin’ all right? You look the same,” he joked after that first number.
Next up was a smokey after-hours ballad, Two Steps From the End. “The night life,” sang Cray, sounding like someone who knows, “has never been ea-a-sy.”
Later in the tune, organist Jim Pugh offered a righteous Hammond solo, pivoting from flutey licks to full organ roar.
The audience cheered.
Cray’s sweat-soaked set included Strong Persuader, skilfully ended with a surprisingly delicate decresendo.
The song was ultimately capped by the singer’s sudden single hand-clap, as if to say, “Just how echoey is this hall, anyway?”
A newer offering was (Won’t Be) Coming Home, from Cray’s 2012 disc, Nothin But Love. The song is standard blues fare in some respects, yet the lyric is striking — with such images as a man who, watching his lover leave, observes he’s “standing here, watching her taillights.”
Many of Cray’s songs investigate love gone wrong. There was, for instance, a fine, bittersweet simplicity to Great Big Old House, in which the singer lamented that “there used to be love in this great big old house.”
One of Cray’s strengths is his realization that although the marquee features his name, he’s also part of a band. His quartet, which included drummer Les Falconer and bassist Richard Cousins, played with a tasteful sparseness mirroing the guitarist’s own approach.
The whole show stacked up to a tasteful (and tasty) package — especially given Cray’s ability to write songs in a variety of styles with thoughtful, detailed lyrics.
Given the blues-rock excesses of some self-proclaimed blues players, it seemed like a breath of fresh air.
Accessing the concert proved a challenge. We arrived 30 minutes early for the general seating show to join a long, slow-moving lineup.
Inside we could find only a balcony seat behind the stage.
From this bird’s-eye vantage point, opening act David Gogo — who sang and played well — couldn’t be seen (although we did manage to spy the other opener, Victoria’s Jason Buie who, like Gogo, offered an enjoyable acoustic blues set).