Robert Cray Band at the South Shore Music Circus on July 8

A review of the Robert Cray Band at the South Shore Music Circus on July 8, 2007

, Staff

Crowd participation was the theme of The Robert Cray Band’s performance at the South Shore Music Circus on Sunday night. Whenever the instrumentation began to wane, back off and create bluesy, stripped-down breathing room, the zealous (probably drunk) middle-aged crowd would inject their own instrumentation, which included shouts, yelps, ‘Ow’s!’ and ‘yahoo’s! They tried their hardest to goad Clay into exchanging some dialogue, desperately shouting things like, “You’re the man!” or “What’s up Robbie!?”

In addition to crowd presence, the performance recreated the rhythmic precision and the resounding blues drive of the band’s first live album and purpose of their current tour, Live From Across the Pond. The album was recorded over the course of seven shows at London\’s Royal Albert Hall in 2006, when Cray and his band were opening for Eric Clapton. Most of the songs played on Sunday night are also featured on the new live album.

The band dove right in with little introduction and blasted through the feel-good funky rhythmic vibe of “Phonebooth” from the band’s 1983 launch into stardom, Bad Influence. Cray’s vocal fortitude was instantly apparent as it commanded the Music Circus tent with resonating clarity.

Songs like “Poor Johnny” from 2005\’s Twenty and “The 12 Year-Old Baby” from 2001\’s Shoulda Been Home ached with that deliberate, uncomfortably slow-moving beat that so often accompanies lyrics about a bad relationship. Cray remains predictably consistent with these topics, and his pleading tone is softly complimented by organist Jim Pugh’s crooning chords. It was during these down-tempo songs when the audience felt the urge to interject with their own verbal expressions of heartache, like a pack of wolves howling at the moon.

After Cray’s fifth guitar switch the tempo was quickly revitalized as he declared, with all of the coolheaded, serenity a blues musician can offer, “Let’s make it funky.” With that, the band launched into “Right Next Door,” a tune with a driving beat that gave Cray multiple opportunities for quick, single-measure, solo licks. It also featured an artistic manipulation of volume knobs which were used to simulate an impressively authentic fadeout at the end of the song.
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The band returned to ballads with the self-titled track from, Twenty. The climbing, augmented progression of Cray’s tremolo soaked guitar created a musical vibe much different from the rest of the set, a much-needed breath of fresh air.

The rest of Clay’s set list included up-tempo songs like “Bad Influence,” which struggled to vary the band’s relentless and pointlessly overused grandiose endings. You know the type: the big drum rolls and symbol crashes that change with the exaggerated decrease in tempo until the final, heavy downbeats of guitar distortion fall with the front man’s body heave, signaling, at last, the end. It was a ritual repeated in nearly every song in the set list with the exception of “Right Next Door.”

However what Cray lacked in unique song structure, he made up for in performance. After most songs he would satisfy the crowd’s thirst for dialogue and mumble some comments. “She was terrible,” he said shaking his head after “Bad Influence” (a song about a woman who was a really bad influence). He also joked with the audience about the slowly rotating circular platform the band performed on asking, “How do our backsides look?”

The band encored with “Time Makes Two” and “I’m Walkin.” Towards the end of the performance the high energy songs were becoming repetitive. Not quite as repetitive, however, as those of James Hunter’s band, Cray’s opener, whose endless James Brown spin-off songs began to feel like old chewing gum.

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