Album + Live
Robert Cray may be a gloriously reliable musician when it comes to live performances, but he has become decidedly erratic when it comes to album releases. For 30 years America's most successful contemporary blues guitarist and singer-songwriter didn't release a live album, but now there have been three in just four years. In 2006 there was Live from Across the Pond, recorded at London's Royal Albert Hall when he was opening for Eric Clapton (rather confusingly, the title wasn't changed for its UK release). Two years later came Live at the BBC, featuring 1988 and 1991 recordings from London's Hammersmith Odeon. Now comes yet another live album (which is also his first live DVD release), recorded earlier this year in Mobile, Alabama.
As expected, it's an impressive set that provides further reminders of why the hard-working and versatile Cray is such a popular live performer. But his followers should check their CD collections before purchasing, for he repeats a lot of both his most recent and best-known material. Four of these songs appeared on last year's studio album, This Time; four more were on his Across the Pond set; and two on the BBC album. That old favourite from 1986, Right Next Door, appears on all three live albums.
Cray has succeeded by creating a style of his own, mixing blues with anything from soul to rock and gospel. He has his critics, who find his approach too cheery or lacking in edge for a blues singer, and there are certainly passages here where he eases off with laidback, relaxed songs like the soulful Lotta Lovin' and the ballad I Can't Fail. But he's also capable of pained and emotional vocals, as on Our Last Time, and he's an inspired guitarist.
The high points include his pared-down treatment of Sitting on Top of the World, a song made famous by Howlin' Wolf and BB King, and - best of all - the live treatment of Chicken in the Kitchen. A slow blues, concerned with sex, cooking and infidelity, it builds to into a magnificent instrumental work-out, with Cray's guitar sparring with the keyboards of Jim Pugh, who has been playing an increasingly important role in this excellent band.