ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 27, 1994
By Steve Newton
If there’s one thing that’s a sure cure for the sad-eyed, rain-soaked January blahs, it’s a blues show at the Commodore. And when that show’s on a Friday night (January 21), the headliner is Robert Cray, and the opener is Taj Mahal, then cryin’ time is definitely over—unless, of course, you can’t get a ticket to the sold-out affair. Then it’s time to grab a guitar and start learning the words to “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”.
Taj Mahal was the ideal solo performer to warm things up for Cray, since his authentic feel for the blues revolves around the same less-is-more approach and results in an equally joyous musical experience. Accompanying himself mostly on guitar and occasionally on keyboards, the former Henry St. Clair Fredericks focused on tunes from the latest entry in his 25-year recording career, Dancing the Blues, which sees him putting fresh takes on songs by Howlin’ Wolf, Fats Domino, and T-Bone Walker.
It took a while for his mellow efforts to win the attention of the chatty crowd, but the simple power of his blues eventually reeled them in, and they wound up clamouring for an encore. Mahal showed his appreciation with a stirring version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues”.
Cray had it much easier, joined as he was by a killer five-piece band that backed up his solid voice and guitar with top-notch work on trumpet, sax, bass, drums, and keyboard. The soft-spoken Cray wasted little time talking up the audience, mainly letting his precise, tasteful string-bending weave its magical spell on the swaying throng.
Although Cray has explored R&B, jazz, gospel, and pop stylings on previous recordings, his latest, Shame + a Sin, sees him getting back to the straightforward blues that made his breakthrough 1986 release, Strong Persuader, such a huge hit. As expected, tunes from that Grammy-winning disc brought the wildest responses from the crowd. Unfortunately, a dozen or so tables that had been set up at the front of the stage denied many hard-core Cray fans a closer glimpse of their hero.
During the encore, yours truly finally left the convenience of the Commodore’s bar area and headed to the front of the stage, and it was there that the full brunt of the music hit me. Standing in front of the wall of speakers at stage right, I cursed myself for not getting closer earlier on, but I was glad I’d arrived in time for my favourite Cray tune, “Smoking Gun”.
That song topped off a full night of merriment, but one that lost some of its mirth at the news from deejay-musician Stormin’ Norman Casler that his fine radio show, CFOX Sunday Blues, was being canned. Now all the would-be Robert Crays in town will have one less outlet on the Vancouver airwaves. I say the Fox—which boasts about supporting local talent—should take track seven on Cray’s new album to heart and “Leave Well Enough Alone”