Reviews Zone

Robert Cray Band: That’s What I Heard (Nozzle Records/Thirty Tigers) 27th March 2020




5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)




Robert Cray’s new album. This review could easily be a short one. Because three words sum up this 20th studio album from US blues, soul and r&b star Robert Cray.

“A bloody triumph”. It really is the best thing he has done in many years, and one of the best albums of his 40-year career.

The vocals are as good as back in the day when he cuts his classic debut album, 1980’s “Whose Been Talkin’?”

His guitar skills are always top drawer. But the songs here give him the right vehicle to relax and do his saanging thang – and really are a dozen perfect-fit songs for what he does and how he does it.

No wonder he brought back producer Steve Jordan for this outing – who took charge of Cray’s previous releases, 1999’s “Take Your Shoes Off” , 2014’s “In My Soul” and 2017’s “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm”.

Jordan aiming to replicate the sound Sam Cooke had on his early records, and I can say, Steve and the team delivered on that promise.

The Robert Cray Band here is bassist Richard Cousins, Dover Weinberg on organ and keyboards and new addition Terence F. Clark on drums. Steve Jordan adds some drums and percussion in places

The five-time Grammy winner  and Blues Hall of Fame inductee celebrates the music of Curtis Mayfield, Bobby “Blue” Bland, The Sensational Nightingales and more alongside five of his own compositions.

I recall Eric Clapton stating that Robert Cray was the only modern-day artist who could write blues songs as credible as anything the originators wrote back in the day. Here he does just that – but they are far more than just blues songs.

The set opens with “Anything You Want”. A funky groove. The voice is massively on-point. So soulful and passionate. The guitar licks trademark Robert Cray. The song writing force is strong. All is well.

Robert takes us to church on this sweet gospel tune, “Burying Ground”,  originally done by The Sensational Nightingales. An inspired choice for Cray and takes him back to his childhood and the records his parents played at home.

His wonderful vocal takes me back to the days of The Soulstirrers and the late, great Sam Cooke. I love Robert’s growling delivery here. No guitar on the track at all, and his vocal more than makes up for that.

A full gospel album would be most welcomed from me for RC’s next project. I still have vivid memories of Robert singing a duet on stage with Tina Turner during her UK arena tour in the 90s, when his band opened for Tina. He came back on during her set to sing the Sam Cooke classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Tina. A magical memory.

“You’re The One” The B-side to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s hit 45, “Turn On Your Love Light”. Another very fine vocal with some natural vibrato.

The chugging mid-tempo, Cray-penned song “This Man” sees him having a pop at the current POTUS. It features some gorgeous Cray licks, which put me in mind of Albert Collins and Johnny Guitar Watson, but again, trademark Robert Cray guitar work.

Curtis Mayfield’s wonderful ballad “You’ll Want Me Back” is spot on. A snug fit as a vehicle for Cray’s sweet soul vocals and some great falsetto. The backing vox add value on a sizzling slice of vintage r&b – a song Mayfield penned for Motown artist Major Lance.

Robert’s ability to inhabit a song and connect emotionally is a vital component to what makes him brilliant at his job. So innate. Like he has lived that heartbreak and that pain, and is desperate to share his burden just with you. Quite a skill, especially as I am well aware he has been happily married for 30 years and now has a young son.

His subtle understated guitar brush strokes on this track add to the emotion. Do not under estimate his “second guitar” rhythm contributions across this album, though. Like the glue to stick it all together and just as important as his lead parts.

Another of the five Cray originals is track six: “Hot”, a real corker. Groove-soaked up-tempo track which features an infectious riff reminiscent of the 1959 cut by Rosco Gordon, “Just A Little Bit”. The only complaint I have of this one is it stopped at 3.34, and I could have coped with another hour. Bet this kicks butt, live.

Steve Jordan penned “Promises You Can’t Keep” with legendary guitarist and producer Danny Kortchmar and Fabulous Thunderbirds harp star Kim Wilson – written for “High Water”, the Fabulous Thunderbirds last album.

It could have been written by or for Mr Cray. Perfect-fit, slow, heartbreak blues. His vocal phrasing, restraint and yearning delivery are so damn good, on killer lines like this: “Loving you is like a slow burn, it’s like the furnace without no coal. Aww, Lord. It’s like you’re throwing dirt on my soul”. A masterclass on how to serve the song.

When Robert and the band were cutting this new album, former Journey singer Steve Perry turned up in the studio to visit a friend. He had heard the track and was convinced the original vocal harmonies which Jordan had dropped, must be put back in. Jordan and Cray agreed, and back they went, with Perry singing on them.

Robert’s self-penned ballad “To Be With You” was written in memory of his friend Tony Joe White who had just passed away. You can read my interview with Tony in our ‘Features Zone’, when I spoke to him not long before his sudden death. Lovely guy who I had met a few times.

Robert and the band pick up the pace for Don Gardner’s obscure 1966 slice of r&b, “My Baby Likes To Boogaloo”, which adds horns for the first and only time on this record.  This is sure to get ‘em up on their feet if he does this one live.

The band really nail the groove here, and Robert exploits that natural growl in the back of his throat. The horns punchtuate (yes, I meant to spell it that way!) the drummer is “on it” and it’s a great job all round. Grungy organ sat low in the mix. Robert’s choppy, Cropper-esque power chords drive this beast along.

Robert wrote the mid-tempo “You Can’t Make Me Change” which features a lovely guitar solo and a cool vocal. One of Robert’s best mates for decades, Richard Cousins, his long-time bass player and best man at his wedding in the UK 30 years ago (I was there!), wrote the penultimate cut “Little Less Lonely”, with Swiss pianist and songwriter Hendrix Ackle.

A tale of losing someone, loneliness and then finding someone to be with, but the lyric: “It may not be love, but I think it will do!”, tells its own story!

The closer “Do It”, goes back to 1960s or 70s style r&b, and those Saturday night dance halls and a packed dance floor. Billy Sha-Rae made this a dance floor filler in the Detroit club scene of the 70s, penned by Jack Ashford and Lorraine Chandler.

I can imagine the current Northern Soul crowd digging this one. Make a good sample for a rap track. The guitar licks are spine tingling – and ‘Ghostbuster’ Ray Parker Jr. adds second guitar.  He played in Shae-Rae’s band as a teenager.

But talking of guitars, this record is far less about Robert’s guitar talents and more about the songs and the voice. If that bothers you, go listen to any Joe Bonamassa album and fill yer boots!

Though, what guitar there is here, is sublime. But Robert’s voice at 66-years-old and with the mileage his vocal cords have clocked up across more than 40 years of touring and recording, is remarkable.  The likes of O.V. Wright, James Carr, Sam Cooke and Otis float about in my head, as I hear these golden vocals. Surely enough to win him a sixth Grammy – irrespective of anything else on this record.

He still hits all the high end falsetto, sweet spot soul licks,  no cracking or breaks at all, but with age has brought a gruffer, growlier lower end of his register and that adds tremendously to his ‘to-die-for’ tone.

I first saw Robert and his band on what may have been their first  UK tour, in 1985. Maybe 100 – 150 people or so in the audience. Mind blowing.

Over the years since then, I have had the pleasure of access to the man; to shoot pix at his gigs as they grew bigger – including his tour with Tina Turner in 1987 – and for some of his various festival appearances. Reviewing his shows, interviewing him face-to-face and on the ‘phone, and exclusive photo shoots.

Then in February 1990, I was asked to keep a secret and attend a church and hotel in Leicester, to do the press shots of Robert’s wedding to Susan, a British model then based in L.A., but with her family based in Leicestershire, they opted to get married over here.

Since then I have been delighted to meet up with Robert a good few times. Most recently at a hotel in London for an interview and shoot, and then at his gig at night and the last time was when he played in Birmingham and I went along in the afternoon to sit in his dressing room for a chat and to do some pix, and then shoot some at the gig at night

He never changes. Softly spoken, no ego, no tantrums. A real gentleman and it is clear that fame, success, superstar friends and a good few bob in the bank have never affected him, in the times I have had contact across 35 years. Or maybe he’s just a very good actor!

This album is pretty much as strong as his debut in 1980, “Whose Been Talkin’?”, and the brilliant 1986 release, “Strong Persuader”, albeit less guitar fireworks.

Dare I say, that even though I am a huge admirer of his talents and have been since the first song I heard him play in 1985 on stage in front of me, some of his latter year releases have sometimes been a bit of an uneven listen, as regards the strength and consistency of the material.

I will confess to skipping over a few tracks after one or two listens on some of his more recent albums. But hand on heart, that will never happen with “That’s What I Heard”.

This really is, ‘some kind of wonderful’ and so, so, so deserving of the maximum five stars here.

  • Robert and his band are due to tour the UK in April and May for 13 dates, starting in Cambridge on 29th April and calling in at Bexhill-On-Sea, Birmingham, Oxford, Portsmouth, St Albans, London’s Cadogan Hall, Basingstoke, Buxton, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle and closing the tour in Edinburgh on 16th May. Subject to the Coronavirus situation at that time, of course.


By Simon Redley



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