Robert Cray’s Oregon story begins in Eugene in the late ‘70s. The five time Grammy award winner had moved there and formed a blues band with another relative unknown at the time, Curtis Salgado.
Salgado, who recently kicked off the Jazz at the Oxford series, and Cray’s lives changed in 1978 when National Lampoon’s Animal House came to Eugene. Salgado became friends with John Belushi and became the inspiration for one of the characters in The Blues Brothers.
Cray was selected to be the bassist in the movie’s party band Otis Day and the Knights. That time launched a career for Cray that’s spanned over three decades and included collaborations with the country’s most famed blues artists. Along the way he’s won award after award for his stellar guitar and vocal work, and had two guitar models made in his honor.
He’ll play a show at the Tower Theatre on Nov. 11 and it’s a rare chance for Bendites to see a living legend—Cray was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame last year. Full disclosure, the Source Weekly is a sponsor of the show.
From those early Eugene days until now, Cray’s music has always been a more lustrous than dusty version of the blues. That’s mostly a function of his glossy vocals. Cray’s singing is silky and full of emotion. It’s strong and reassuring. Of course, Cray wouldn’t be a true blues musician if there wasn’t something at least a little gritty to layer with that voice—that’s where the guitar comes in.
His playing sometimes represents the emotional chaos of an initial response to a less than ideal situation. Other times a quick run up, and then back down, a blues scale expresses the music’s agreement with the lyrics. Almost an ‘Amen’ to Cray’s woeful cries.
It’s the kind of playing that landed Cray his very own Fender model based on his custom specs.
“That idea came about in ’89,” said Cray—speaking on the phone from his home near Santa Barbara. “I was approached by a guy about having a model from the custom shop. We took a look at the ‘58 Strat and the ‘64 Strat and tried to bridge the gap between the two. I was hands on with the process.”
The result was a guitar that includes many of Cray’s own preferences and is not only still available on Fender’s websit, it’s still the guitar he uses today including on the tracks from Cray’s new album Nothin But Love.
As with 15 previous albums, on Nothin But Love, Cray has made the agitated sentiment associated with blues music a priority. That attitude is most prevalent on the album’s eighth track “I’m Done Cryin’”—a nearly nine minute string-backed opus filled with the lamentations of people affected by the poor economy.
“You read about it in the newspaper and on television and you know that people are struggling,” said Cray. “You know what the banks have done and people don’t have jobs. The song came about with a really simple melody, but the story is what I wanted to get across and give a voice to those people.”
Along with that song are nine other classic and nuanced blues tracks that at times make you smile and feel fuzzy and at other times are perfect for rainy afternoons. So, whether it’s Cray channeling some Sam Cooke on “Sadder Days” or a ‘50s influenced swing-rock track with smart food-based metaphors like on “Side Dish,” Nothin But Love is foundationally the kind of north-of-the-Mason-Dixon line blues you would have found in Greenwich Village clubs 40 years ago.
That everlasting sound has become Cray’s signature.
“I think the classic sound comes from me being classic,” said Cray. “I’m kinda nostalgic. I grew up in the ‘60s listening to Hendrix, I even saw him a couple of times. So all that stuff is mixed up in what we do and what we write. The rest of the guys in the band are the same way.”
While not unique to the genre, it can be argued that blues tends to produce a greater than average number of collaborations between artists.
In the last handful of years, Cray has performed with several of blues’ more notable characters as part of the popular Crossroads Guitar Festivals. During these events, Cray’s band backs up artists like Jimmie Vaughn and B.B. King. And with three Crossroads Festivals under his belt so far and a fourth slated for 2013, Cray claims there is really nothing like working with other artists.
“That kind of thing is essential,” said Cray. “Playing with other musicians you get a lot of ideas. Anyone can put together a recording and play all the instruments themselves, but you don’t get the sense of other ideas being brought in.”
Of course instrumentation, whether a collaboration or not, is only one part of playing the blues—the music also needs to capture vivid emotion to be effective. Even Jimi Hendrix once said that “blues is easy to play but hard to feel.”
Though much of what has attracted generations of listeners to Cray is the prototypical guitar licks of that time-honored blues sound, it still comes back to the soulfulness of that voice. It’s the tool that Cray uses most effectively making it easier on listeners to feel what his music intends to inflict.
Photo; Jeff Katz.
Tickets $35.00 - $50.00 at
7:30 p.m., Nov. 11
The Tower Theatre
835 NW Wall Street