THIS GUY CRAY
There are few genres so beholden to the abstract notion of ‘authenticity’ as the blues. It has to have an ineffable realness to it to be accepted by the establishment. It’s more than just pain and loss and it’s not strictly gritty tone and seventh chords. Whatever it is, you know when it isn’t there. For most of his career, ROBERT CRAY has been playing his own brand of blues music with high levels of commercial and creative fulfilment. But despite praise amongst his peers (Albert King and Eric Clapton are fans and collaborators) the establishment has struggled to accept him – he’s too clean, too smooth, too commercial, won too many Grammys (five!).
None of this has kept the incredibly humble and soft-spoken Robert Cray awake at night. ‘People are always gonna be ready to stand on your head as soon as you step out of bounds. That’s just like anything else in life; there’s always someone ready to pounce.
‘I don’t give it much thought because I know there’s not going to be another Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson. I know all that. But at the same time, music has to go forward. We used to catch grief because we incorporated R&B and rock ‘n’ roll into our blues. And now I see more bands doing that. You’ve got someone like Gary Clark Jr who can front a serous blues band, but at the same time the music is progressing because he’s incorporating a style of music that’s part of his generation. That’s how it goes forward. We were knocked for doing the same thing. But that’s just the way it is.’
For the second half of the ‘80s, Cray capitalised on years of hard graft in dive bars and made a name for himself in the mainstream. In the musically confused decade that was the ‘80s there was something about Cray that stood out; a precision and tone about his music unique amongst his peers. ‘That sound came about because I was originally playing a Gibson I switched over to a Fender Stratocaster so it had a bright sound. It stuck. That high piercing shrilly sound.’
But as any hack three-chord basher will know full well, the best hardware can only get you so far. There has to be something deeper. ‘In my younger days I had a code: touch, tone and phrasing. Those were things I was looking to accomplish. And my heroes were people like BB King. He could say it all with one note. That was his way of communicating. One note. And he said it with authority.’
Cray is back in Australia to play the Bryon Bay Blues Festival and a run of solo shows and he’s noticeably excited about the festival. ‘It’s always fun. The whole atmosphere is great. There’s no room for big heads. You can do that at your own private shows.’
Robert Cray will be performing at Byron Bay Blues Festival, running Thu Mar 28-Mon Apr 1. See bluesfest.com.au for ticket details. He will also play Enmore Theatre in Sydney on Saturday March 23, 7pm. Tickets are $96.20-$118.80 +bf through Ticketek.