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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007

A Lean, Live Unit

Robert Cray's concerts spotlight his band

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December 27, 2007

Fans who have seen the current edition of the Robert Cray Band know that one of the real attractions is listening to how the four band members play together, support each individual instrument and serve each song.

On stage, the chemistry between guitarist/singer Cray, keyboardist Jim Pugh, drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Karl Sevareid is obvious yet seemingly spontaneous and effortless.

Cray himself said that even after playing more than 1,000 shows with this lineup, he didn't fully appreciate how the band played together until he started listening to tracks for his recently released concert CD, Live From Across The Pond.

"There are a lot of things you don't realize that go on when you're performing," Cray said. "I mean, I'm at the microphone and I'm playing guitar, and I hear the support, but then again I don't really hear it because I'm concentrating on what I have to do. It wasn't until…I was able to sit and listen as an audience member would and just from the beginning of the song see where these guys were going to take me. And I listened to the bass. I listened to what the bass was doing with the drums. I listened to what the keyboard player was doing with the bass, and what the two of them were doing with the drums and what my rhythm was doing with the rest of it. I thought, 'These guys—this is pretty funky.'"

Live From Across The Pond, perhaps more than any of the bluesman's dozen studio albums, showcases the interplay between the band members.

The spare setting of "The One In The Middle," for instance, offers an example of how Sevareid's bass line not only helps anchor the song, but plays off both Cray's guitar runs and Pugh's church-like organ solo. On "Time Makes Two," the four musicians work off of Hayes' booming beat to gradually build to the song's dramatic finish.

Live From Across The Pond is the first live CD from Cray in a career that now stretches more than 30 years.

He formed his first version of the Robert Cray Band in 1974, and enjoyed a major commercial breakthrough with the 1986 album Strong Persuader.

Hayes and Pugh joined for the 1990 CD Midnight Stroll, while Sevareid replaced long-time bassist Richard Cousins on the 1992 CD I Was Warned. The core lineup has been together ever since.

The idea of doing a live album was not new to Cray, but previous attempts just didn't pass muster.

One key reason, Cray said, is that he felt the pressure of delivering a top performance with the tape rolling.

"We've had problems with that in the past, trying to just record a single show," Cray said. "For some strange reason, it's a complete psych-out. You know it in advance and you get all wound up and tight—I'm speaking for myself—and I've even kind of lost my voice in anticipation."

But the band's seven-night stand opening for Eric Clapton in 2005 at London's Royal Albert Hall offered a way to overcome some of the problems of past recording attempts. For one thing, it eliminated the all-or-nothing pressure of having to nail a single concert. Cray said the band members were also focused first and foremost on trying to deliver as Clapton's opening act, and this almost made the recording seem secondary.

Pulling songs from various nights on the seven-show stand, the CD's 14 tracks span Cray's entire career. With so much material to choose from, Cray says selecting tracks for the album was a challenge.

"What I had to do was sift through the various versions of songs and pick out what I felt were the best performances," Cray explained. "And some of them, night to night, the songs varied and were good in their own ways. It made it kind of difficult. But there were little things, like, for example, the song 'Our Last Time.' On the CD now, it's the version where Jim plays a solo on organ, whereas he normally plays it on his piano. Since he played it on the organ, I thought that would be a nice change of pace. So there were little things like that that popped out."

The Robert Cray Band plays a midnight show New Year's Eve at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino's Northern Lights Theater.

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