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Robert Cray: Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm
by George Graham
(Jee-Vee Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/3/2017)
There seems to be a significant revival in interest in the more venerable varieties of blues and soul, perhaps as a reaction to utterly soul-less commercial pop, driven by computer generated rhythms and samples purloined other people’s music, topped off with robot like Auto-tuned vocal tracks. Nineteen Sixties soul offers almost the exact opposite, with honest performances, both instrumentally with real musicians providing all the sounds and vocals that are as honest as can be. They had to be, given the technology of the day. While there are a number of emerging bands who take up the style, there are still veteran performers who keep the soul fires burning, such as William Bell, whose Grammy winning album we reviewed last year. And this week, it’s the new recording by the veteran and prolific blues and soul artist Robert Cray. It’s called Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm. Those with long memories can probably figure out the meaning of the title, with Cray working with some of the musicians who were a house band at the Memphis label Hi Records best known for Al Green’s recordings.
Robert Cray came of age in the Pacific Northwest where as a teenager he was drawn to the music of soul man Bobby Blue Bland, the rock guitar of Jimi Hendrix, and the straight-out electric blues of Albert Collins. Cray formed his first band in 1974, while still in his teens, and released his first recording in 1980. His albums Bad Influence and False Accusations in the 1980s won him national attention, and he has been at it ever since, making music that straddles blues and soul. Along the way, he picked up four Grammy Awards. His last release was a live recording that included songs that spanned his 40-year career.
Now for the new album, Cray gets together with producer Steve Jordan, with whom Cray has had a long relationship. They traveled to Memphis to record with musicians who have been part of the scene there, and made the album in a studio that was the venue for a number of 1960s soul classics. The music covers some more obscure pieces and Cray creates a few of his own for a very satisfying album with honest, soulful performances.
Among the personnel on the new recording are Steve Jordan on the drums, plus three family members of the late guitarist Teeny Hodges who was part of many of Al Green’s recordings. There is Rev. Charles Hodges on keyboards, and his brother Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass, as well as a cousin, Archie “Hubby” Archer on additional keyboards. There are horns and strings occasionally making appearances. But Cray’s guitar work remains prominent. A notable guest on the record is Tony Joe White, who was also a part of the Memphis soul scene back in the 1960s. The album contains two of White’s tunes.
Opening is a song written by Bill Withers called The Same Love That Made Me Laugh, a bluesy song in terms of its musical texture and lyrics. Cray and company let the Bill Withers influence come through. <<>>
More earthy in sound is a song recorded by O.V. Wright, You Must Believe in Yourself, showing the horn-driven Memphis soul sound. <<>>
Also with a classic sound is I Don’t Care, written by Mac Rice, who wrote Mustang Sally. Cray does a great job vocally. <<>>
One of two tunes that Cray includes that were written by Tony Joe White is called Aspen, Colorado. White himself puts in a guest appearance on guitar and harmonica on this easy-going ballad. <<>>
One of the original compositions on the album is a topical song called Just How Low pointedly aimed at the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump. But like the of best topical songs, its message is likely to outlast its target. <<>>
This album has a sound that I think is more timeless than intentionally old-fashioned. But the track called I’m With You is definitely retro in sound, complete with a kind of Gospel-influenced group of male backing vocalists. <<>> Another retro aspect of the song is that it is in two parts, like old blues and soul records that were on both sides of a 45 rpm record, continuing from the A side to the B side. <<>>
Another of Cray’s original songs on the album is probably its most-laid back ballad called The Way We Are. Though known as a blues vocalist, he distinguishes himself this retro-sounding track. <<>>
The other Tony Joe White song is Don’t Steal my Love. It also features its composer on the guitar and harmonica. The tune turns out to be an opportunity for a jam on the part of the band. <<>>
As part of the retro-soul revival movement, a number of prominent artists have traveled to Memphis to record aiming for the classic sound, including rocker Paul Rodgers of the band Free and Bad Company, and Melissa Etheridge. Now Robert Cray, whose own music over the years has drawn significantly on soul influence, has made the pilgrimage to Memphis for his new recording Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm. The result is outstanding. It’s right up the musical alley for the veteran bluesman, and it’s all done very well, both instrumentally and vocally with the Memphis-based musicians working out the same studio where Al Green, Otis Clay and O.V. White made their marks.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” While the recording could have a better dynamic range, it has a nice punchy sound and Cray’s vocals are well-recorded, with a clean, natural sound, for the most part. That fortunately bucks an annoying trend among especially among younger retro bands, of emulating the crummy sound of badly over-driven analog recordings from back in the day.
Blues and soul man Robert Cray in his more than 30 year recording career has rarely disappointed. He tends to move back and forth along the imaginary line between the two genres. Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm has him plainly on the soulful side, and the album is a treat.
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