Howlin' Wolf or Jimi Hendrix? Ask Robert Cray who he'd choose to see of any band or artist, living or dead, and he has a hard time deciding. "I'd like to see Jimi Hendrix again," Cray says, chatting on the phone in exactly the soft, soulful speaking voice you'd expect having heard his work. He did see Hendrix twice, the first time in a small crowd in Dacoma, Washington, and then later in Sicks' Stadium in Seattle on July 26, 1967, just a few months before Hendrix's death. Like Hendrix, Cray did some growing up in Seattle and took up guitar at age twelve. Cray started with a Harmony acoustic and shortly thereafter, inspired by the Beatles' arrival in Washington State, he switched to an electric guitar of the same make.
As a younger boy, he'd taken piano. His father was in the army and, at that time of registering his son for the lessons, was stationed in Germany. Cray chuckles "I'm sure it was in the hope that I would be the next Ray Charles." His father was clearly a music fan, as well as a soldier, and apparently knew how to follow orders without question. He tried to teach that to his son, "Don't you question me. Just do what you're told." Cray mimics his old man. The song, Twenty, the new album's title track is intended to expose that exact point of view. A soldier's dilemma is laid out for listeners' consideration - a character gets to Iraq and finds out he's not fighting the war on terrorism by going after Osama Bin Laden, but is instead cause and witness to civilians dying, for oil and American profit, while laying down his American life. Cray says there hasn't really been any notable backlash for this criticism of the Bush Administration. In fact, a non-profit, grassroots advocacy project embraced the song with an offer to stream the entire album to its online community on the album release date.
For the current album, band members made demos at home and mailed them to one another. When they got together in the studio they made charts and embraced the spirit of learning new material. Cray says they wanted to capture the intensity that comes from striving to get it right - a passion vs. precision decision. I see this approach as an emblem of such seasoned musicians. He comments that songs always change as they jam them out, that they even play different every night. I guess that's how they continue to love playing live, and keep it fresh. "That's what this band is about. What we've always been about, even when we started playing bars in 1974." They still have fun, there's magic on stage÷ being in the flow. Cray says he loves the adrenaline rush that hits just before you get on stage and how it still has you hyped up when the gig is over.
His recorded collaborations include Tina Turner, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, and BB King. Asked what he remembers about working with Keb Mo, it's not just that he's a great musician and a good guy, but that when Cray found himself struggling and stumbling to read the charts, Mo tossed them aside and suggested "just play." This allowed Cray to change the movement of the song with his solo, and as his 2004 Keep It Simple fellow players enthused "raise the bar." Cray also remembers how inadvertently, all three collaborators showed up that day wearing purple shirts.
Today Cray has about 25-30 guitars, including that first electric which is stored at his mom's; in pieces however, because it was loaned to a neighbour boy and returned in that condition. Going forward, this 5x Grammy winner thinks his biggest challenge will be finding food. I mean, an old time musician today can't live on the royalties from music sharing. They have to keep the band name out there, and keep traveling for the live shows. "It's not really that hard. It's just that your whole day becomes about foraging," he says of finding healthy food to eat during the travel time. After more than a thousand performances as a unit, Cray says the shows that really stand out are the ones where you get to meet your heroes.
Speaking of heroes, Cray emphatically regrets how he missed the chance to see the Howling Wolf in November 1975 at the Chicago Amphitheatre, on a bill with BB King, OV Wright and many other great blues men. At the time, Cray and a few buddies who were trying to get a band started were shacked up with the harmonica player's girlfriend in Eugene, Oregon. Cray had a commitment elsewhere and declined when the bunch of them hopped in car and took off to take in the ailing Wolf's heroic performance, recreating old songs and performing his old antics like crawling across the stage during the song "Crawling King Snake." The crowd went wild and gave him a five-minute standing ovation. When he got offstage a team of paramedics were able to revive [Wolf], but this concert was the last from such a legendary performer.
The Robert Cray Band has tour dates lined up across the USA and Europe that extend well into the fall. Cray has done his fair share to keep roots and blues music alive and it's encouraging to hear him sounding so strong twenty years later. Take Twenty, and take Cray as blend of both men, Howlin' Wolf meets Jimi Hendrix.
Visit www.robertcray.com for more information on the Robert Cray band's tour dates.
Writer: Kim Logue