February 24, 2012
Mary D'Angelo Performing Art Center
Erie, PA USA
Review by David Brais
Photos by David Brais
Back in 1987, a few months after Robert Cray had released his brilliant Strong Persuader album, a friend of mine asked me to go to the Cleveland Coliseum to catch Cray opening up for Huey Lewis & The News. Lewis and his band had released their own monster album, Fore!, so needless to say the building was completely sold-out. But, as fate would have it, my friend caused us to arrive late to the concert. Just as we were getting to our seats, Robert Cray was walking off. Though Huey Lewis was at the top of his game, the evening overall was a bust for me. Those memories were racing through my head some 25 years later as I drove with my best friend, my wife, to Erie, Pennsylvania to catch an evening with Robert Cray at the Mercyhurst College. We weren't going to be late.
Before the show, I was fortunate to be part of a meet and greet with the blues guitar hero, so it made this evening particularly eventful for me. As we settled into our seats later on, the five-time Grammy Award winning musician walked onto the dark stage, counted off to the band, and went right into "I Shiver." Believe me, upon hearing the opening chords to that song, it most certainly sent shivers down my spine. Cray's classic guitar licks, and pitch perfect voice, filled the venue with a confident, yet humble, energy.
Those attending the Mary D' Angelo Center performance knew immediately they were in for a special evening of blues. When the song was over, the crowd responded with thunderous applause. The band leader, ever the gentleman, showed his appreciation and gratitude with a humble, "Good evening. We are the Robert Cray Band. Thank you so much for coming out tonight." Then, with a quick smile he said, "Low down & dirty!" With that said, the band launched into the gritty "Two Steps from the End." The audience went wild. When it came to the solo on this song, it was Jim Pugh and his Hammond B3 organ that stole the spotlight. Pugh added a punch seldom seen, or heard, in today's 'modern' live shows of sequencers and MIDI's with his keyboard performance. He was on such a roll with his Hammond, that at one point, the rest of the band watched in quiet respect on stage as Pugh put on a stunning demonstration of his skills. Afterwards, all a smiling Robert Cray could say was "Jim Pugh on organ!" The sold-out crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
Cray changed things up a bit by playing the reggae tinged "Poor Johnny," followed by "It Doesn't Show" and "Backdoor Slam." Considering the musician does not use a set list, the tempo of the song selection tonight was extraordinary as one song flowed into another. Before the evening's performance, I had asked Cray's road manager, Tim Aller, for a copy of the night's playlist. He looked at me and said, "Well, the set list usually goes like this. One, the band goes on stage. Two, Robert begins playing a song, and the rest of the band joins him. And three, the band exits the stage when they have finished performing for the evening." Now that's confidence not only in your own ability, but your band as well.
Cray was accompanied by his long-time friend and cohort, bassist Richard Cousins. These two have been playing together for almost 43 years. They were joined by Pugh and drummer Tony Braunagel. With his deft guitar work leading the way, the band kicked into a little bit of "Eleanore Rigby" before segueing into "Bad Influence." The musician often joked with the crowd to keep them engaged. At one point, he acknowledged the people in the box seats on the side of stage as "Royals," and politely bowed to them. The audience ate the moment up.
Throughout the evening, Cray was humble and sincere as he spoke, and joked with, those assembled at the performance center. He was like that before the show as well. At the meet and greet earlier, upon seeing my wife in a wheelchair, Robert grabbed a chair so the two of them could converse at eye level. Up until that moment, she couldn't have told you two Robert Cray songs. His gesture truly touched me. The two of them talked like old friends. Finally, my wife caught the legendary guitarist off guard by asking if he was going to get back together with Otis Day and The Knights. They all laughed and joked about it. The entire band treated her like royalty and even hid her chair from view in a photo we took. Richard Cousins noticed I had a Ronnie Baker Brooks shirt on, and expressed his admiration for the blues guitarist. It was this kind of class before the show that Robert Cray continued during his 90-minute set later on that evening.
Driving back to Cleveland after an electrifying night of entertainment, I was trying to figure out exactly what category Robert Cray's music fit into. I finally had to give up. There is no way to categorize what this humble musician does. He's not your standard blues, pop, reggae, pop, jazz or rock performer. Robert Cray is simply, Robert Cray. He plays folk chords, blues riffs, reggae tempos, jazz melodies and rock licks. He sings like an angel. If he missed a note on his instrument during the show, you would have never known it.
Yeah, it is funny how 25 years of waiting for 'the moment' can either exceed your expectations or deflate them once the day of reckoning is upon you. This night, the musical Gods were not only smiling down on me, but for all those who witnessed Robert Cray's mastery of his music and instrument. In fact, when it was all said and done, it made me want to "Shout, kick my heels up and Shout, throw my hands up and Shout, throw my head back and Shout." Oh wait, that's Otis Day. My bad!
Two Steps from the End
It Doesn't Show
One in the Middle
Will You Think of Me
Chicken in the Kitchen
Don't You Even Care
Time Makes Two