Robert Cray Band in Agoura Hills
Photo credit: Dino Perrucci
The blues, by nature, is cathartic music. And no better is that catharsis delivered during the holidays than by the Robert Cray Band. The singer-guitarist, marking nearly four decades of ceaseless recording and touring, has become a national treasure of sorts; maintaining, if not exceeding, a standard of excellence he set over 30 years ago when he first came to national prominence. Cray did not perform any holiday-themed numbers during his 100-minute set at the Canyon, but his every note seemed to strike the right sentiment for the season, leaving the near-capacity audience feeling really good about feeling bad, or just feeling really good.
Cray has always let his music do the work. Aside from quizzing his longtime bassist, the barefooted Richard Cousins, about his plans for after the show, (Cousins said he’s going back to bed; he’s self-admittedly old), Cray kept his remarks between songs brief, offering a happy holidays greeting and a few band intros. Otherwise, from the start of the mid-tempo soul of “Chicken in the Kitchen” to the ticking inevitability of the closing “Time Takes Two,” the foursome stayed intent on filling the evening with gleaming moments of polished playing and pros-on-the-loose jamming.
For his part, Cray sounds, and appears, not so much ageless as suspended in time. His voice still digs to the core of any snarling junkyard blues, as on “Just How Low,” or hits the heights with effortless ease on “Bouncin’ Back,” the latter churned out at a brisk pace showcasing the Hammond B-3 organ talents of Dover Weinberg. This is a band that follows Cray, or leads him at times, with supreme confidence in the journey, dropping down to a whisper on the poly-rhythmic “You Had My Heart,” or inspiring the dinner crowd to a standing ovation after the battering blues of “I Shiver,” maybe the night’s most affecting effort.
As for his guitar work, Cray’s choices can be described as like the most incisive words in an argument, then the most warming during reconciliation. There is a modernity to his playing that remains fresh and searching while it acknowledges the past with respectful nods. His roots are just that; strong and grounding, a pipeline to the present blooms.
The four shifted terrifically between the subsets of the genre, whether through jumping R&B, classic soul, reliable shuffles, or downhearted rambles. Cousins had a short, but notable bass break on Cray’s signature hit, “Right Next Door (Because of Me).” Weinberg, too, had his share of solos, but it was the unified thrust of the group, as on the upbeat and penultimate “You Move Me,” that was the obvious motivation of the quartet. This is the Robert Cray Band, and while its namesake and his age-defying musicianship will always be the flashpoint, it’s his humility in the presence of his bandmates and his always-developing repertoire that bring the crowds in, anytime and again, to feel the blues for a while.