Feature: Robert Cray talks Muddy Waters, vinyl collecting, and NPR Tiny Desk Concerts + G Live Gig R
“I realised I was tired of singing about trees and flowers. I wanted to sing about real life. From then on, nobody could tell me anything was better than blues." - Robert Cray
Robert Cray Band at G Live (Guildford) Review:
What a night to venture to Guildford, the towering G-Live reflecting from the damp cobbled streets. The night certainly didn’t disappoint the crowd, made up entirely of flatcapped, blues-heads ready to get their dose of Cray real talk.
But first, an act – ready to warm-up a crowd who’s forgotten how snappy British winter can be – Mike Eldred Trio.
These lads transported the audience back in time with their nostalgic covers, as well as strumming out their 2016 album Baptist Town and their new record 61/49. Mike Eldred Trio really had fun with their unique style, bringing down their instruments to a whisper sometimes and then breaking back in with James Bond.
With Mike providing rasping vocals and Jonny Bazz providing the bumpy bass in full power stance. Then with Brian Fahey providing the stylish beat, it was almost like they had brought the audience to their favourite blues bar in Phoenix Arizona. They’d clearly had a good tour as the band had sold out of all merch besides their signature barbecue aprons.
The boss of blues then hit the stage with his band, made up of Richard Cousins' slap bass, Dover Weinberg on keyboard with his prize Hammond organ and Terence Clark, slapping his drum kit with every sort of stick in a drummer’s arsenal.
The whole band meshed beautifully on the neon stage. Richard Cousins is one of the originals and has his eyes fixated upon every band member at once as he darts, barefoot, around his huge ornate rug.
Cray does a short speech midway through about the singer-songwriter Tony Joe White. The Robert Cray band do a nod to him by covering ‘Aspen, Colorado’. White also wrote ‘Don’t Steal my Love’ - track 10 of their new record Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm which they then launched into.
Everyone wants to be as comfortable as Cray. His crazy guitar was conducting every blues-head to bob wildly from side to side, holding them in the palm of his hands as he yelled “let’s get funky!” between each song, wiping down his guitar neck with a towel. His instrument is such a delicate weapon that he gets a new guitar between each song.
This is so he can get different sounds from each guitar, re-tune some guitars for songs with varied pitches, as well as having each one perfectly tuned before the concert (imagine if that was your job!).
Cray still talks about real life and his themes are extremely current. He even starts one of his tunes – ‘Just How Low’ – with the American National Anthem and expresses his deep disdain at a certain President. This was also the reason for his album cover, somewhat similar to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’.
It’s no secret that Cray loves to use his downtime to cook tasty food and tells the audience all about this in ‘Chicken in the Kitchen’. The Cray Band’s style is truly eclectic, showing the 21st century there is still a place for blues.
Robert Cray Interview:
Jamie Loyn also caught up with renowned American blues musician Robert Cray ahead of his British tour...
You’re a desired man when it comes to Blues, you must be very busy at the moment?
It’s a good thing, if it happens for you.
To me you’re the master of self-accompaniment, how have you mastered both singing and playing the mad riffs you do?
I don’t know. By telling stories I suppose. I have the support of the band as well you know, so if we try to keep the music as close to the story as we can it helps. You’ve gotta split your mind.
And jump around time settings?
You try to be in the moment all the time.
How do you manage to keep your blues up to date in comparison to the classic blues? Arguably it’s the foundation of pop and jazz so which stylistic features do you bring out?
The thing with us is that we all listen to of different types of music so you wouldn’t necessarily categorise us as just a blues band, because there’s so many other elements that are a part of what we do. And I think that that’s an important thing for people these days. You know I enjoy listening to people who I deem as blues masters. People like muddy waters and those before me. But as the same time I have the same respect for people such as Otis Redding, Sarah Balm, or folk music. Growing up listening to all of that, it plays a part in how we approach music in general.
Who’s got the weirdest taste?
Hey, I think weird is healthy.
It’s not the first band line-up, as when you saw Albert Collins and Muddy Waters live?
Richard Cousins who plays bass with us, he’s from the original band. He’s been in it for the longest time and he’s been out of the band too, but he’s back.
Didn’t you play bass in the National Lampoon’s Animal Band?
I did, proudly. It was pre-recorded music so we were holding the instruments as props. I want to stick to closer to what I know now. Playing real instruments, and being on stage you know what I mean?
I look forward to coming back, because we do have a nice fan base there. I just enjoy coming to London as well and it’s like being home as well. I mean I do have family there. My wife, well she’s from England, up near Leicester, she was born and bred in Northampton.
What do you like about being on the road?
I just like going to different places. It’s a great thing. It was a great dream. Starting off when I was a kid I wanted to play guitar and be in a band, like every kid does, and now I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s a great thing, living the dream. I get to go out and do the thing that I like to do - what I love to do actually. Eating different foods in different spots too.
The guys and myself, we have a hobby, we go into record shops searching for old vinyl, so that’s fun as well.
How many vinyl do you think you’ve got in your collection?
Oh only about a couple of thousand, bordering on 30k.
Ah a meagre collection...
It’s not too bad. I keep playing them over and get surprised that I’ve got many more to do.
You know I’ve got some Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers that I really enjoy listening to, or Diana Washington. Great stuff you know.
And why did you first choose guitar? First pick it up and stick with it?
The Beatles. I always wanted to be like George Harrison.
Arguably the craziest one, right?
He was cool. He was the lead guitar player so not that bad.
Did you always know that you’d play lead?
Yeah I wanted to play lead (chuckle) I wanted long hair too but that never happened
"You painted yourself into a corner, you’re tryna paint something new” is a line from '(Won't Be) Coming Home', what do those lyrics mean to you?
It’s talking about us telling our own story. In whatever art form that imay be
Does Blues really have the funk?
Why yes. Yes it does.
You’ve worked with a number of legends – John Lee Hooker, Steve Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, to name a few. Any still on your list?
I don’t have a list persay. Things just kind of happen along the way so I can’t really say. I did have an opportunity last week to see Buddy Guy and I hadn’t seen him for a while, we jammed with him and the band. He then told us some great stories about Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters years ago.
Great to hear the real talk from the guys that that have been round for a long time and he’s a real good friend.
Music to my to ears. And where else are you going on this long awaited tour?
We started the year going to Australia and then we went all over the states. Before we come to you we’re going to Holland, then Poland.
From the tiny desk to the cobbled streets of Guildford...
That was a weird gig actually!
Tiny Desk Concerts are an interesting concept.
Well it’s interesting going back to doing a show with minimal gear y’know. It’s also a lot of fun.
It makes you self-conscious right?
It’s a good challenge. You’re there as a band. And you lose yourself a little bit. You’re set up and everything but then we had a real blast.
How much do you rehearse with your band?
We rehearse every day when we’re on the road. We don’t take time off before a tour, we just get on the road, the rehearsal will be our sound check. We spend a lot of time together on the road. It’s not really necessary unless we’re coming up with some new material.
Well I look forward to hearing it when it comes out. Thank you so much for your time, see you in Guildford.