It’s not often that we get world-class blues acts touring through the Capital Region, but it seems that we’re witnessing a resurgence. In July, Slam Allen brought the blues to Saratoga, starting off a parade of talent at the Parting Glass that includes upcoming shows by Johnny A., Sue Foley and Debbie Davies. Last Thursday night, Vinnie and the crew at the River Street Pub brought Larry McCray and his band to Troy, and booked a group of area blues/rock all-stars to warm up the crowd.
It was apparent as soon as Sloan Tash led the group into the first song that this was going to be a special night. There a few groups around who can tear through a set of a half-dozen familiar blues/rock songs with a take-no-prisoners sound, while simultaneously making it seem effortless and relaxed. The lead guitar tandem of Matt Mirabile and Frank Daley are fluid enough to play passages note-for-note as originally recorded, and talented enough to stretch out in their own direction.
The group covered a handful of Allman Brothers and Freddie King songs, along with one each from Clapton and Cream. Though the set included such standards as “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Whipping Post” – songs which would sound tired from most bands – in their hands, they sounded crisp, fresh and energetic. No doubt a large part of this was due to the rock solid rhythm section of Joe Daley on drums and John Ellis on bass. There are no reported plans for this group to play regularly, which is a loss for area blues fans. The group deserves to be on their own bill, and the fans deserve more music like this.
With the bar raised so high by the opening act, McCray had no choice but to bring his A game, and backed by his regular band, he demonstrated the talent that has made him popular on the festival and club circuit for nearly 20 years. The sheer variety of styles he has in his repertoire guarantees that there’s going to be something for everyone at his show. The night started with “Last Four Nickels,” a song with an upbeat modern blues groove that provided a platform for both his deep voice and excellent guitar work.
Next was “I Don’t Need That Kind Of Woman,” a song that can only be described as a sweet soul groove, the kind of song that makes you smile and want to sing along, forgetting that it’s about a gold-digging woman from the other side of the tracks. It was in this song that the rhythm section really started to shine, with frenetic bass player Kerry Clark and drummer/brother Steve McCray providing a groove that was simultaneously loose feeling, but tight. They played off the beat just a perfect amount to turn it into a real hip-shaking soul song, but still with the precision of a Swiss watch. Their harmony vocals proved that each of these guys could be fronting their own bands. The icing on the cake was Shawn McDonald’s organ, which provided an artfully subtle backing to McCray’s guitar, allowing him to lay back and let the groove drive the song.
The band soon worked its way through a swampy, rock-style vamp and a deep blues that could have easily been mistaken for Albert King at the height of his ’70s blues power, leading up to a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Sugar Sweet” that was so deep and funky that it left even Freddie King’s version in the dirt.
Part of Larry McCray’s magic on stage is his ability to combine simple musical ideas with simple vocals in a way that is powerful and visceral… he tugs at your heart strings, he kicks you in the gut, he makes you dance, and he makes you want more. And part of his magic is the way he moves his meaty fingers so fluidly over the guitar that it’s like watching water flow over smooth rocks in a stream. Each note seems to flow from the one before that’s effortless and natural. Some players wrestle with their guitars all night, squeezing out the notes with all their might, but McCray is just as expressive while coaxing each lick smoothly out of his guitar. It’s as if he inspires the guitar to sing for him, instead of using brute force to make it scream.
The night included songs that touched on nearly every genre that goes into the modern blues melting pot, which distinguishes McCray from a lot of other artists that fall under the heading of modern blues, with an emphasis on funky wah-wah guitar riffs that would be right at home in the ’70s, a heavy dose of ’60s-style soul, mixed together with enough of a gospel tinge here or New Orleans vamp there to make you want more.
After a break, the band closed the night with a short set that emphasized the more soulful part of his catalog, starting with “Gonna Get My Blues On,” which featured harmonies so lush that Sly Stone would have been jealous. The set featured a jam with yet a fourth guitarslinger, Jeremy Walz, who stayed on stage for “Soulshine,” leaving the star to finish the night with “Black Magic Woman” and another original from his last album, “Run.”
It’s rare for us to get talent of this caliber in a local club, and if last week’s crowd was any indication, there’s a healthy demand that will hopefully keep more great acts coming to town.
Review and photographs by Eric Gleason