LIVE: The Robert Cray Band @ The Egg, 3/13/19
Review by Don Wilcock
Spoiler alert: my view of this concert does not match that of most attendees…
I run tapes in my head of what I expect to hear in the concerts I review. I can’t help it. It’s built into my DNA as a “critic.” I put those words in quotation marks because I don’t consider myself a critic but rather a journalist who reports on what I experience from the perspective of a man lucky enough to have rubbed shoulders
with thousands of musicians I adore who make my life rich, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do that for more than half a century.
Robert Cray and Joe Louis Walker both are musicians who have enriched my life for decades. I first saw Robert Cray backing John Lee Hooker on guitar around 1980. He was the only guitarist I ever saw able to stand out in a group backing the amazing Boogie Man.
When Cray became a band leader, his own style emerged as a much more subtle singer/songwriter whose musical themes often deal with a man’s depression over failed relationships with a depth uncommon in the blues genre. I’ve interviewed him many times and found him to be a very humble man who has trouble believing so many people still find his original music engaging.
Joe Louis Walker is a brilliant man whose multiplicity of blues creds include having lived with Michael Bloomfield, for my money the most important single white “real deal” blues guitarist to validate the white incursion on African American blues during the ’60s when “the crossover” to a mass audience by everyone from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones took place. Bloomfield was Paul Butterfield’s lead guitarist, and he died way too young of a broken heart/drug overdose for a multiplicity of reasons I won’t go into here.
Both Cray and Walker blur the color lines that some people still feel exist between “real deal” blues and “white boy blues” as it was pejoratively called in the ’60s when bands like The Nighthawks were making their mark. Both acts, Walker and Cray, can transport me into Nirvana on a good night.
To be blunt about it, Walker did just that at The Egg in 32 minutes of performance, and Cray bored me for an hour and a half. Cray got a standing ovation, and Walker didn’t get an encore after a set that was 10 minutes shorter than any opening set should be.
Walker and his three-piece band do what Chuck Berry did best. They take original songs sparkling in their everyman imagery and deliver them in simple blues melodies crammed with seemingly dichotomous influences. Their sound is like barbed wire on rice pudding. Tighter than mosquito’s tweeter, they ROCK with a vengeance. The standout number of this concert was Walker’s four-minute tour de force on an Earl Hooker song he learned from the slide guitar master in the ’60s. Buddy Guy once told me he would never attempt to play slide guitar because he knew in his soul he couldn’t come close to Hooker’s mastery. Walker did in one song what Guy’s been afraid to handle in 70 years of performing.
Cray was the yin to Walker’s yang. Mild mannered, dressed in a white sport coat, he has become more Tony Bennett than John Lee Hooker. Admittedly, I haven’t listened to his more recent records, so I was disappointed that he didn’t do many of his early hits. Also, his band was excellent at what they did, but the whole set lacked the
spitfire that Walker set us up to expect. Obviously, the audience got what they came for. Cray got two standing ovations and played three times longer than Walker.
In my mind, I see the two acts as musical equals, but in a world where it’s about putting asses in the seats, Cray is king, and Walker is the pretender.