Is it really 40 years?
Actually, it’s around 30 since Strong Persuader established Robert Cray on the blues scene, but he’d been paying his dues for a decade before that. What’s harder to get your head round, however, is the fact that the ever youthful-looking Cray is now in his sixties. How is that possible?
Interestingly, Cray didn’t release a live album until 2006’s Live From Across The Pond, but this is his fourth since then, so he has clearly warmed to the format. It’s also fair to say that Cray’s unassuming style works better in concert than in the studio, where it can feel somewhat dry to the casual listener. It may be coincidence that his status has grown over the past decade, to the point where his UK tours routinely sell out, but the quality of his live albums has probably played a part.
The 4 Nights… two-CD-plus-DVD package is no exception. The first CD is drawn from four shows in and around Los Angeles last year, and while there are a couple of songs from his then-current album, Nothin’ But Love, the rest of the set takes a broad sweep across his career. The advantage of not having greatest hits that you are obliged to trot out at every show is it gives you a broader choice, and Cray takes full advantage. The fluent I Shiver from 1993’s A Shame + A Sin sets the scene, emphasising Cray’s graceful style, and the eloquent, politically charged Poor Johnny adds substance to that style. The way he uses his guitar to change the mood during Won’t Be Coming Home underlines his consummate musical skill.
He uses covers sparingly but effectively, digging up an old Sam & Dave B-side, Wrap It Up, although he may have heard it first by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, which is why Kim Wilson joins him to sing Sam’s (or Dave’s) part. Howlin’ Wolf’s Sittin’ On Top Of The World is perhaps superfluous as it also featured on 2010’s Cookin’ In Mobile, but veteran harmonica player Lee Oskar’s cameo at least adds an additional flavour.
The second CD dips back three decades for a couple of shows that confirm how far Cray has come. There are two songs from his appearance at the 1982 San Francisco Blues Festival that got him a record deal, clearly showing a man on a mission. And a 1986 Dutch TV show with four tracks from Strong Persuader reveals a man who has found his style and a different kind of confidence.
Film from both shows can be seen on the DVD that presents a revealing portrait of Cray. There are endorsements from the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Guy, and rehearsal footage as they prepare for their Los Angeles shows with a horn section. At one point, producer (and occasional drummer) Steve Jordan rebukes the band for getting lazy on Love Gone To Waste, which cuts to concert performance of the song where the message has clearly been heeded. As Cray says, “You gotta keep your ears open and expand your mind.”