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Kick Back and Relax

[whitespace] Robert Cray and mates find their comfort zone on soulful 'Take Your Shoes Off' album

By Nicky Baxter

With his plaintive vocals and tensile guitar style, Robert Cray lent legitimacy to the blues revival of the 1980s. Less rock-influenced than Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cray has always had more in common with the Southern-fried soul of W.C. Clark and O.V. Wright. Although the Robert Cray Band has released several discs that speak eloquently of ultramodern blues, Cray really caught fire on 1985's Showdown!. Since that album, Cray has backed away from the king-guitar role some critics had assigned him. Over the past decade, he has honed a style that has less to do with Muddy Waters or even Buddy Guy and more to do with Wright's Memphis blues-soul offerings. That connection was made as early as the singer/guitarist's first solo outing, Who's Been Talkin'?, which featured Wright's R&B-soaked romp "I'm Gonna Forget About You."

With Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc), the Memphis connection is even more marked; the disc recorded was there and recalls the classic Al Green/Hi Hat sessions of the early 1970s. Indeed, the first cut, "Love Gone to Waste," is co-written by Willie Mitchell, a key component in Green's sound. Over a laid-back groove cooked up by keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Severeid and drummer Kevin Hayes--and augmented by a sturdy horn section--Cray's mellifluous tenor stretches out, his falsetto moans harking back to Green's high lonesome wail. Cray's guitar solo is spare yet charged with pent-up passion.

Penned by Cray, "That Wasn't Me" boasts the legendary Memphis Horns. This late-night weeper is as churchy as tent-house revival; Pugh's keyboard playing sounds as if it has been inhabited by the holy ghost. Cray's lyric vacillates between self-justification and guilt over cheating on a lover who, as it turns out started the whole mess by stepping out on him. Cray's pain-riddled vocal, however, hints that he may have driven her to the act. Throughout, Steve Jordan (Aretha Franklin, Neville Brothers) maintains impeccable production values, pushing Cray's sultry croon to the fore while providing excellent separation between Cray's lead/rhythm guitar and the his rhythm section.

On the bittersweet midtempo "There's Nothing Wrong" Cray puts a positive spin on a romantic encounter that has turned sour. Pugh's jauntily tinkling keyboard lends a buoyant feel to the tune. Cray may be down, but one gets the feeling he'll be ready for the next go-round on love's carousel. "24-7 Man" is an upbeat number with Steve Jordan's strutting rhythm guitar bolstering Cray's own chunky comping. Adding extra punch are the Memphis Horns, which punctuate the singer's distinctly amorous braying.

With Take Your Shoes Off, it would appear that Cray and his bandmates have discovered their true comfort zone. Not that the musicians sound complacent: Far from it, the band's playing is intensely passionate, and Cray's possesses a biting intensity few of his peers can match. If nothing else, this album ought to quiet critics bent on dismissing Cray as buppie bluesman (as this writer has done in the past). True, he may not be the next Muddy, but the man's got soul to spare.

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Web extra to the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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