Call And Response: Robert Cray

You can’t begrudge Robert Cray a round of backslaps. In 2015, the one-time baby-faced junior partner of the Showdown! triumvirate is officially an elder statesman, turning 62 and toasting four decades of his band with a forthcoming live CD/DVD release. Comprising 42 songs filmed at four separate venues on the US West Coast, 4 Nights & 40 Years Live is the antithesis of the wobbly YouTube clip, with a fleet of seven cameras capturing every molasses vocal and tickle of Strat vibrato. “We’re doing this project to celebrate 40 years of the Cray Band,” the bandleader tells The Blues on the phone. “So there’s a lot of effort going into making this thing look and sound really special…”

So tell us about the 4 Nights & 40 Years release…

We had a really good time doing it, and we were working with Steve Jordan as producer. I enjoy working with Steve immensely, and any opportunity that I can work with him, I will. The release is a lot of different things. We recorded rehearsals, conversations between the band, we recorded live sets in a lot of very different locales. We did a theatre stage, a party setting, a small club. It’s quite candid. I’m just sitting around having normal conversations and all that. We were all wired up with mics, and the camera people were kinda inconspicuous at points. So it was kinda cool./o:p

How did it feel to be trailed around by cameras?

Well, we’ve had situations where we’ve had camera people saying they’re gonna film us and they’re not gonna be in the way. And in the past, that’s never worked out, but this time, we had a company that really were like that. I’m just waiting for the footage to be delivered to my house right now. So we’ll see how it turns out. I’m always very critical of my own releases./o:p

How did you choose the venues – and what was the significance of them?

Well, they just kinda fell into place. We always play in a lot of different locations, so we just did four in a row, and it just turned out to be the four that were coming up. We were at Solana Beach, California, at the Belly Up. We were in Ventura, for a private party at management’s office. And we played the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. So it’s different contexts, and it gives an idea of how the band is in different situations.

As a performer, do you notice the vibe change between venues?

Oh yeah, it’s very different. You can tell by the way there’s people at your feet in the small clubs, with their beer right up in front of your toes. It’s a whole different feel when it’s jam- packed like that. And it’s just the total opposite when you’re up there on a theatre stage and people are rows back and they’re sitting down: that’s a complete different energy. I don’t have a preference. I like them all. They all pose a different challenge, and the variety is great to have.

Do the small gigs remind you of early years climbing the greasy pole?

Oh yeah [laughs]. It reminds me of what it was like. And it’s always good to be reminded of where you came from. In the small clubs, it’s like being in a gym. It’s a real workout. Getting sweaty with the people, y’know, and going to work. It’s great.

How did you choose the setlists for the shows?

The setlists get written out on a nightly basis by Richard Cousins, our bass player. Then I go, “Okay” or “No”, and I make some changes as necessary. For these shows, we were playing more stuff from the current record, In My Soul, but we’ll go back to the Bad Influence record for songs as well. I’ve always been partial to ballads. So I really like playing Deep In My Soul, and I also like Time Makes Two, from the Time Will Tell album. And then there’s Your Good Thing (Is About To Come To An End)./o:p

Isn’t it hard to play the ballads on the bar circuit?

We always did, though. I mean, yeah, a lot of bands don’t. A lot of bands rock all night. But we always did ballads. We always mixed it up.

Did those shows go well?

Oh yeah. The shows were great, we had the horns with us who are on the current record, and Steve Jordan sometimes played drums. So when Steve would play drums, then Les [Falconer, drums] would play percussion – and vice-versa – on certain things. So it was like we were all odd-men, and it was a bigger band, and it was a ball. Did anything go wrong behind the scenes? No. And we don’t let anything like that bother us these days anyway.

Did you make any mistakes while you were on stage?

[Deadpan] Oh no – it was perfect. Because that’s the way life is. No, you don’t think about the mistakes.

Some people ‘tidy up’ live albums after the gig: how do you feel about that?

Well, I don’t think that’s a good idea. And this release is going to be a DVD as well, so you’ll be watching us and what you’ll see is what you’ll hear. We’re not going back in and cleaning up stuff in the studio afterwards. If there’s a mistake, then it will stay in. And actually, we might even turn the mistakes up. Even on our current record, there’s a song called Hip Tight Onions – and on that, I play a guitar that’s out of tune. But we kept it in there, because the track was great. That’s just how it is.

4 Nights & 40 Years Live will be released later in 2015 via Provogue/Mascot./o:p

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.