Review: Robert Cray – Liverpool – 13 July 2008

Posted on: Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008

The Empire Theatre, Liverpool: 13/07/08

Billed as a ‘fringe’ event for this year’s Summer Pops, unbelievably, after some thirty years on the road, this was the first ever Liverpool gig for guitarist Robert Cray, and his band – which attracted a healthy Sunday night crowd to the grand surroundings of the Empire Theatre.

Since hitting a sales peak with his soul-laden blues in the mid-to-late eighties, Cray and his blazing Fender Stratocaster have toured relentlessly and issued a string of fine albums, without reaching the heights of the likes of “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” and “Strong Persuader” – the 1986 release which really established him.

Robert Cray is simply one of the finest guitarists around today, and the  man from Columbus, Georgia is blessed with a truly great soulful voice, that coupled with his fine band, makes for a memorable evening’s entertainment. His band – now consisting of Jim Pugh (keyboards), Karl Sevareid (bass) and Kevin Hayes (drums) are all top players – and embellish Cray’s stunning guitar work.

He and the band were down to business on a cracking “Phone Booth”, a tune that the late, great bluesman Albert King saw fit to cover; and then one of the standout cuts from the last studio album, “Twenty” – the sorrowful “Poor Johnny”. We were taken right back to 1983 for the title cut from the “Bad Influence” album – another quite beautiful vocal performance and of course, lashings of his trademark guitar.

The aforementioned “Strong Persuader” record was the one that became a huge-seller and we were treated to two of its best songs – “Right Next Door (Because Of Me)” and the favourite, “Smoking Gun” – a hit single which cross him over from a pure blues crowd to a more general audience.

The title track of “Twenty” was stunningly delivered and was one of the sets highlights – an Iraqi war song that hits home. The “Time Will Tell” album was dipped into for the menacing “Back Door Slam” with Cray’s fluid Stratocaster licks just tailor-made for the theatre’s acoustics.

A string of richly-merited encores rounded off a most enjoyable evening – the blues classic “Sitting On Top Of The World” being the only cover of the evening – mind you, when your own material is so strong, who needs other peoples’ tunes!

Apart from the stellar rhythm section, long-time keyboard man, Jim Pugh, was on sparkling form – whether on Hammond organ or piano – especially prominent on several songs when the band stretch out, often into a funky groove, and he is the perfect foil for Cray’s sometimes lengthy guitar solos.

Opening up the show was a new name to me, London-based acoustic guitarist Marcus Bonfanti, whose folky blues half-hour set was warmly received, and led to healthy cd sales for him afterwards – a name to look out for. He has a nice gravelly voice and fingerpicking guitar style, very impressive indeed!


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