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He Just Wants to Testify

Robert Cray's no longer the blues' great black hope

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Sometimes, the passing of the years has a way of putting old clichés to rest.

That has certainly been the case for Robert Cray. It's been nearly 20 years since Cray was rather simplistically (and falsely) touted by much of the music press as "the great black hope for the blues."

To be sure, that was a tempting moniker for some to bestow on Cray, since he was a young black blues guitarist in a genre that was mostly dominated by older black blues masters or younger white guitar slingers. But since Cray is now 52, he now almost qualifies as one of the "older black players."

The "great black hope" label was always a facile one, however, because Cray has never been a straight blues artist. While his guitar style is heavily influenced by the crisp, string-bending, urban blues fretwork of B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Bobby "Blue" Bland, Cray's music is equally inspired by the silky sending and testifying of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and other great classic soul singers.

"Yeah, I got caught up in the blues guitar thing really early, but I also just couldn't let go of all that great soul music I heard when I was growing up, the guys who were influenced by gospel," says Cray, whose band shares a bill with Eric Clapton on Oct. 17 at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena.

Cray is currently touring on the strength of the newly released Live From Across the Pond (Vanguard), his first-ever live album -- and a two-disc set, no less -- that covers the full spectrum of his career. The album includes sizzling work-ups of songs like "Phone Booth" and "Right Next Door" from his breakthrough mid-1980s releases, as well as more pensive tracks like "Twenty" and "Poor Johnny" from his last studio album. Other signature Cray cuts on the live disc include "I Guess I Showed Her," "I Was Warned," and "Bad Influence." The album was recorded in May, over the course of seven shows at the Royal Albert Hall in London -- hence the "across the pond" reference of the title.

One aspect of Cray's music that still distinguishes him from classic blues artists is that he often writes songs about more topical, contemporary issues. Cray's last two studio albums have featured a few songs about the human cost of the war in Iraq (one of which was written by his keyboard player, Jim Pugh).

One of those, "Twenty" was the title track from his most recent studio disc, released in 2005. "It's about an innocent young guy, who after 9/11, decides he wants to do the right thing, and avenge the events of 9/11, but he ends up guarding an oil pipeline in Iraq," describes Cray. "He witnesses all kinds of horror, and the killing of his buddies and innocent Iraqi civilians, and he ends up losing his life, at the young age of 20."

Cray and his band mates are opposed to the war in Iraq, but Cray is no peacenik. His father was a career military man, and Cray says he respects the sacrifices soldiers have made, "but this is just a wrong war," he said. "These songs are our way of voicing our disapproval of this war," said Cray, who labels it "the rich man's war" in the song.

On "Twenty", Cray's sound was stylistically expansive, as always. A couple of tracks, "Two Steps from the End" and "My Last Regret," synergized blues and jazz, and the requisite cheating song, "Poor Johnny" -- no blues/R&B album would be complete without one -- grooved to a reggae-fied lilt. "It Doesn't Show," was straight-no-chaser blues, while "Does It Really Matter" churned to a tough rocking-blues rhythm.

"I've always been interested in the shared roots of jazz and blues," said Cray of "Two Steps" and "My Last Regret." "I love the way those two can come together and sort of show that they came from the same place."

Although the days of being anointed as the "savior" of the blues are long gone, Cray still laments that so many young black people reject the blues and classic soul -- usually in favor of hip-hop and modern R&B artists whose music is slick and often soulless.

"Yeah, that still bothers me," said Cray. "A lot of young black people unfortunately still view this stuff as their 'parents' music.' Kids understandably want their own music, but I think the classic stuff has a lot more soul than most of what kids listen to today."

The Robert Cray Band appears at Charlotte Bobcats Arena with Eric Clapton; Oct. 17; 7:30 p.m.; $45-65; www.livenation.com.

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