It’s a tiny ballroom venue. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, it’s intimate, it’s fun – and it’s 1983. That was the last time I saw Robert Cray live on a stage. Portsmouth England, with Scottish legends Blues n Trouble supporting. Cray was only into the eighth of his currently forty years of touring then. At Cologne’s Tanzbrunnen Theatre, thirty three years later, would the fire still burn?
In 1983 Robert Cray looked the spitting image of a young Mohammed Ali. I’m looking through my Nikon viewfinder at a man more reminiscent of the present Barrack Obama, but the elder statesman look suits Robert Cray. For many younger Blues fans Cray is an elder statesman of the genre – indeed, as time increasing robs us of his peers, he’s the next generation after Clapton. That 1990 gig in Wisconsin playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ alongside Clapton and Stevie Ray which were to be the latters last moments on a stage sealed Cray’s place as a Blues kingpin for the next generation, and respect, he’s been a noble ambassador in true BB King tradition.
So long ago now but I still remember the audio thrill of catching the Man for the first time, playing ‘Phonebooth’ on that staple programme for all serious Brit music lovers ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’. It’s still a popular part of the set 33 years on, at least for me. Much of the seated audience though seems to want tracks from Cray’s 80’s releases ‘Strong Persuader’ and ‘Don’t be afraid of the dark’. When the band encore someone even calls out the latter to be answered by Cray “Oh, I’m Not!”they are rewarded in the set itself with a funky version of ‘Right Next Door (Because of me)’ courtesy of some deep picking by longtime bassist and co-writer Richard Cousins who adds some lightness to the evening onstage with the occasional little dance mid-song. Given the bunched together seating he was the only one with that option.
At one point Cray announces somewhat optimistically “Here’s a funky little number that you can dance to” which seemed as far removed from the reality of the situation as the audio voice-over before the show announcing that “Picture taking is permitted but without flash only” seconds before I was granted permission to shoot for just one song, from the centre corridor only, and not directly in front of the stage (which put me directly in front of Cray’s mike stand which he stood behind for the entire song).
The show that followed was precision engineered Blues Rock with only an occasional break for raw emotion which made Cray’s bar-room swaggering take of ‘Sitting on top of the World’ all the more enjoyable and precious (thanks especially to the keys of Dover Weinerg). The strident ‘You Move Me’ managed to get feet tapping and my favourite ballad of the evening ‘Time makes two’ brought goose-bumps to not a few of the audience I suspect. Some memorable musical moments then, but at times I found myself detached from the atmosphere despite the small venue both visually and audibly. A design fault of the venue rather than Cray’s for the most part. I couldn’t help noticing that the cheers and waves came from the centre aisles whilst those either side sat for the most part in silence so it wasn’t just me. It’s the ‘curse’ of many a musical great it seems to find themselves playing in seated theatres of course, and I could see better than ever the reasoning behind bass superstar Carmine Rojas’s decision to exchange the arenas behind Joe Bonamassa for the clubs behind Ryan McGarvey.
All in all I preferred the RC band in that 1983 sweaty Portsmouth Locarno Ballroom and the sense I was witness to the beginning of something special – which I was. It was the sense I got last week at The Harmonie watching Devon Allman (currently topping the Billboard Blues Chart) for twice the atmosphere and half the price. That’s not to devalue Robert Cray or his position as one of the most influencial Blues Ambassadors around today. When he came along with those Blues-Pop crossover tunes in the 80’s he was having hits at a time when Blues was out of fashion, creating a lifeline that kept the genre alive between Clapton’s prominence and the rise of today’s emerging stars. “Here’s one going back, but not back that far – cos I’m not so old!” he joked before ‘Forecast calls for pain’. At a ‘young’ 63 there’s undoubtedly more good music to come from Robert Cray – just a shame the dancing days seem to be over.