It’s about the Band | AspenTimes.com

It’s about the Band

Stewart Oksenhorn

Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyBluesman Robert Cray plays at Belly Up this week.

With 1986’s “Strong Persuader” album, Robert Cray became the bluesman of the moment. The album cover featured Cray, alone with his guitar, a Fender Stratocaster. Inside were such hits as “Smokin’ Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me),” which addressed the standard blues theme of cheating and payback.It’s impossible to say that Cray has receded much from the spotlight in the 19 years since “Strong Persuader.” The 52-year-old singer and guitarist remains near the top of the pile of high-profile blues artists, with his five Grammy Awards – 11 nominations – and his induction this spring into Hollywood’s Rock Walk. Cray was featured at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival last year and in Martin Scorsese’s “Lightning in a Bottle,” the finale of which had Cray trading licks with B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt.But over time, Cray has moved somewhat away from center stage. With each succeeding album, his guitar-playing has become less flashy, less prominent. Entire songs slide by without a guitar solo.

In place of Cray the guitar god has emerged the Robert Cray Band. It is a uniquely steady group: keyboardist Jim Pugh and drummer Kevin Hayes have been with Cray, both on tour and albums, since 1989; bassist Karl Sevareid signed on in 1992. And those are all short-termers compared to Gary Newell, who has been doing Cray’s front-of-house sound for 25 years. Cray says it is a band in the realest sense, in that every member has a voice in the music. Pugh co-produced the band’s most recent album, “Twenty,” and contributed four songs to the album, which was released in May. Hayes co-wrote the song “I’m Walking” with his brother Chris (a member of Huey Lewis & the News).”Everybody contributes as far as songwriting and ideas,” said Cray, a Washington state native who lives in Los Angeles. “Everybody takes what they know of the songs already and tries to do something different on a nightly basis. They change the tempo; they give me a shove from behind to stretch out.”At the outset of his career, Cray collaborated with producers rather than band members. Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker were his regular producers, and they had a hand in the songwriting.”In the early days, a lot of the songwriting was done with the help of the producers, on our first six, seven albums,” said Cray, who made his recording debut with 1978’s “Who’s Been Talkin’.” “So that shaped and molded what we did.”For the last 15 years or so, Cray and the band have put the material in their own hands. That helped to sharpen the vision of the music.”We broke away from that and took control of the songwriting,” said Cray. “And we were writing more about what we saw and felt.”Even more significant than the songwriting has been the sound, which has shown an increasing diversity. “Twenty” opens with “Poor Johnny,” which has a most familiar topic – infidelity – but a rhythm reminiscent of early reggae. “My Last Regret,” written by Pugh about kicking his cigarette addiction, has a late-night jazz feel.

“I attribute that to the fact that we’re not pressured to be anything or do anything,” said Cray, whose manner over the phone is as warm as his music would suggest. “The music has changed, but the influences are the same. Those influences are playing more of a part now. We’ve always liked jazz, r & b, reggae, gospel. As you grow into what we do, it becomes part of you a lot more. It’s growing up and molding all of the influences. It’s easier to incorporate those influences. As you grow older, you get smarter.”But while they have expanded their sound, the Cray Band has also taken large strides in one particular direction as well. Over some 15 albums, and especially since 1997’s “Sweet Potato Pie,” the band has become as much a soul/r & b group as a blues combo. The tempos have gotten slower, the grooves deeper. Pugh’s Hammond B-3 organ has become more prominent. “Every band should have a B-3,” laughs Cray. And since r & b is more about a group groove than a flashy guitar player out front, Cray has become more of a band member than a solo artist.”Our focus is on the song, the message, the story, the groove,” said Cray. “The guitar is a wonderful thing, but it should be used as part of the band. I find it overly gratuitous to stand up there and play just to play. Some people do it, some people do it well, some people shouldn’t do it.”That’s why there’s always been an r & b element to our groove. The Stax groove – it’s got that ultimate restraint. The Meters – they’re not all over the place with the guitar. I want the Hammond organ, the B-3, the groove. This is not Robert Cray and some bunch of idiots behind him.”When the mood strikes right, however, Cray is willing to do away with restraint.”My position is always standing back and being part of a groove,” he said. “But if I start a solo and it’s tasteful and I’ve got something to say, if the sound onstage is right and I’m feeling good, I’ll extend the solo. But if I don’t have anything to say, I’ll shut it down.”

Of late, Cray has added another distinct element to the music. The title track to “Twenty” is about the current American soldier; in Cray’s vision, that soldier is dedicated to country and doing good for it, but wondering how “Standing out here in the desert / trying to protect an oil line” serves those noble aims. The cover photo on “Twenty” is of a faceless soldier hanging onto his helmet; the contrast to the “Strong Persuader” cover couldn’t be greater. Writing topical songs is not generally the domain of the blues – Cray notes that it has been done before – but it is another example of Cray writing his own story of the bluesman.”It’s a blues for the soldier,” said Cray, who had the similarly themed “Distant Shores” on his last album, 2003’s “Time Will Tell.” “They want a voice.”The title “Twenty” refers to the age of a typical soldier. Cray wanted to put a face and an age and a story on that standard soldier, just out of his teens and perplexed about his role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”It just came from reading and feeling what’s going on, reading the ages in the obituaries. Everything is relegated to the middle of the newspaper. I wanted to bring that to the public’s attention, because they’ve stopped thinking about it.”Cray has familiarity with what military service and war can do to a family. His late father was an infantryman, and eventually master sergeant, whose 27 years in the U.S. Army included a stretch in Vietnam. As reflected in “Twenty,” Cray understands the sense of duty in enlisting in the military, the havoc military service can wreak, and the disillusionment that comes with serving shadowy ends.”When it comes to ‘Twenty,'” he said, “I thought about the soldiers. There are a lot of soldiers who don’t like their position now. But they like the service; they’re doing what they’re told to do. But they can’t speak up about it.”Cray says that in the house where he was raised, his father’s orders were not questioned. “He was raised with discipline, and he passed that on to the kids. I understood that,” he said.

In his teens, Cray kept an eye on the draft numbers that determined which young Americans would be sent to Southeast Asia. But by the time he was 20 himself, the drafting had ended, and he stopped paying close attention to the politics and progress of the war. All that remained was his intensely personal interest. “I just wanted my dad to come home,” he said.More musical happeningsJazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival is turning into one impressive demonstration of musical sprawl.First, you’ve got the festival expanded into five days to make room for two shows by Widespread Panic. And the mere presence of Panic means that the invading jamheads will be spreading themselves all over the upper valley for a few days.Then you’ve got this virtual wall of music apart from the main-stage happenings. There’s the Janus Music Club, a second venue on the festival grounds; there’s also the Village Stage, a second stage located at the back of the vendor village, a good hike from the main stage. In its brief existence, the Village Stage has seemed like an afterthought, but this year it sports a lineup that would make a decent little festival of its own.Kan’Nal, a Colorado band influenced by the tribal sounds and sights of Central America, follows its Carbondale Mountain Fair-closing performance by opening the Village Stage activities Sept. 1. Particle, an electronic jam band from California, follows on Sept. 2, with Gabby La La as special guest vocalist. Particle’s profile in the jam realm was heightened this year when they joined forces with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to form the touring band Hydra.

The English band the New Mastersounds, accomplishing the difficult trick of sounding just like the Meters on its new CD “This is What We Do,” plays Sept. 3. Oteil Burbridge, best known as bassist for the Allman Brothers Band, leads his funk-fusion group Oteil & the Peacemakers to the Village Stage Sept. 4. No act is scheduled for Sept. 5 – but that’s probably just a matter of time.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com