Robert Cray Band
November 13, 2012
Tuesday Night Blues
By Bob Gersztyn
The Aladdin theater in Portland, Oregon, is one of those venues that’s the perfect size for an intimate concert, with only 600 seats, including the balcony. Tonight it was a sold-out show with standing room only, augmenting the capacity to nearly 900. The show started promptly at 8 p.m. when Joe McMurrian walked onto the stage and sat in a chair that was strategically placed center stage in front of the Robert Cray Band‘s equipment. McMurrian is currently based in Portland and is a songwriting guitarist who plays a Delta Blues/Roots style with influences from Robert Johnson, Skip James, and Sun House to Jimi Hendrix, Leo Kottke, and Chris Whitley.
McMurrian picked up an acoustic guitar and began with “Drop Down Mama” as he worked the strings until they passionately sang out. He wore a plaid shirt and Stetson hat and his appearance and demeanor reminded me of Bruce Springsteen during his Nebraska period. McMurrian switched instruments nearly every song, from acoustic and resonator guitars to banjo. ”I want to do one that I wrote,” he announced in introduction to “Home of My Own” as he played with a delicate expertise that reached into the soul and touched the heart of the spirit! He talked about the way that stolen guitars sometimes turn up in pawn shops where you might purchase one that was owned by a famous person without even knowing it. The next tune he played was “Get Inside the House,” something that his mother, like all mothers, tell their children at some time he explained in introduction.
After he concluded ”East Virginia Blues,” McMurrian talked about how his grandfather was born in California after his family was run out of Oklahoma for running whiskey, while he traded his guitar for a banjo. McMurrian sang about his family coming from the hills of Oklahoma as his fingers delicately danced on banjo strings as a snappy melody filled the auditorium. He switched to a large 12-string acoustic guitar to play Pete Seeger‘s ”Going To The Country,” and then switched guitars again to play “Been Away So Long.” McMurrian concluded his 40-minute set by telling the audience that in 1986 he discovered the patron saint of the blues, Robert Johnson, playing two of his songs, including the “Last Fair Deal.”
After a short break to get the stage set up, Robert Cray came out at 9 p.m. singing the blues about relational infidelity and other subjects. Sam Cooke‘s “Bring It Home To Me” brought out Cray’s signature vocals and guitar, as he gave tribute to one of the first and most famous gospel crossover artists to emerge from the golden age of gospel. Cray’s stage demeanor is always lighthearted and counterbalances the negative subject matter of his compositions. Tonight was no exception as he made fun of keyboard player Jim Pugh‘s hat as part of the introduction to “Wont Be Coming Home,” a new song off his 2012 release Nothin But Love. The same band members from the album were on stage with Cray, including Pugh, drummer Tony Braunagel, and longtime friend and original bass player Richard Cousins. The pace slowed down as the band began ?Two Steps From The End,” with Cray crooning:
The night life
Has never been easy
Has never been easy for me
Cray wailed on his guitar until Jim Pugh took over on the organ, burying the keys until they exploded in staccato notes coloring the aural atmosphere. Cray’s guitar resumed center stage, as he picked out notes in a descending scale that ripped through the ether in high-pitched scalding shrieks. He talked and he cried and he laughed out the lines:
Now I’m two steps from the end,
Last door down the hall,
That’s where you’ll find me.
The song faded as he immediately segued into ”Some Pain, Some Shame,” another tune about a dysfunctional relationship off of his Shame + A Sin album. Cray played his Stratocaster like it was an extension of his body, with his fingers running up and down the fretboard as he danced around the stage, driving the sound deep so that you felt it in the pit of your stomach. Feet danced in front of the stage and in the aisles as the notes shrieked out peals of pain and shame. Cray’s incredible playing was augmented by the bands ruminations that responded to him by reciprocating an aural stew that thundered through the auditorium like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Hangin’ around cryin’ ain’t part of my plans
I’m gonna see you on the witness stand
There’ll be some pain, some shame
Man, I mean some pain, some shame.
As the song faded out, he changed guitars while Braunagel’s drums dominated, with Cray beginning to beat out the intro to the next sad, heartbreaking song. The stage lighting turned yellow as he began singing “I Had Better Days,” picking out the melody on his guitar as he continued to mesmerize the audience. As soon as the song ended Cray called for the lights to be turned down as the entire stage turned deep blue. He immediately began to stroke his guitar as chords exploded from the speaker introducing “Right Next Door (Because of Me),” from the Strong Persuader album. The five-time Grammy winner enthusiastically played the songs and guitar style that has gotten him nominated a total of fifteen times, solidly placing him in that exclusive blues guitar pantheon that includes B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Cray’s being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011.
Cray stopped playing for a minute while he greeted the crowd, ”Thank you for coming out to see us on a Tuesday night.” Then he thanked Richard Cousins for all the inspiration that he provided over the decades as the band dove into “The Forecast Calls For Pain” off the Midnight Stroll album. The driving rhythm of Cray’s guitar faded as Pugh’s keyboards took the lead with Braunagel and Cousins providing a driving rhythm that made it impossible to stay seated as the band rocked the house. Cray’s emotionally broken voice repeated the refrain “The forecast calls for pain,” until he took the lead on guitar again, plucking strings like a clucking chicken, with his voice soaring into the stratosphere. Fret runs alternated with ear piercing wails, as the words faded.
I can feel the thunder
I can see the lightning
I can feel the pain
Oh, it’s gonna rain.
After changing guitars again Cray told the crowd, “I worry about the world she lives in,” as he began strumming chords and singing, “I get a constant busy signal .” By the time that the band hit the instrumental break, Cray’s digits were dancing on the strings like they were an icy delight cooling his fiery fingers. He wailed on his guitar as notes exploded into the ether transmitting sonic vibrations that resonated on nearly 1,800 tympanic membranes. ”Smoking Gun” was a radio hit from the 1986 Grammy Award-winning Strong Persuader album that he sang with relish as he crooned, “I put two and one together,” prior to a total sonic guitar assault. He brought the crowd to its feet as the band concluded and came forward to take a bow prior to exiting the stage, only to be brought back by ear-deafening clapping, foot-stomping, and whistling by the crowd made up of a forty-and-up age group. The band dove right into “Chicken in the Kitchen with Cray singing:
I do all the cooking in our house, baby
Youre always running around
There’ll be no more chicken in the kitchen
If you don’t try and settle down.
Cray played his guitar with the delicate finesse of a man possessed as the band segued into the final number of the night. After 16 studio albums in over three decades he could have played till 3:00 in the morning, but he concluded the night singing about the economic circumstances of a man out of work grappling with his manhood. He played his guitar with a violent dissonance that reflected the details of the story that he sang. The assault on his guitar included strident chords that evoked emotions to correspond with begging for mercy, falling down in pain, and an inability to cry anymore. Braunagel, Cousins, Cray, and Pugh played off each other until they built a crescendo of sound that kept the audience on its feet through the conclusion of the night’s performance. When the band exited the stage and the house lights came on, the applauding crowd still wanted more.
Please check out this week’s Photo Page to see some of Bob’s photographs from the show.
Bob Gersztyn in a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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