Robert Cray Band
Cookin' in Mobile
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2010, Volume 17, #10
Written by John Metzger
Wed October 6, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
There is a reason why Robert Cray not only achieved a significant amount of mainstream recognition during the early portion of his career, but also has been an incredibly popular attraction on the blues circuit ever since. Cray is, after all, a dynamic performer who is as capable of applying his soulful vocals to songs that are rooted in old-school R&B as he is of igniting his blues-based material with lacerating guitar licks. His studio fare has attracted his fans, while his concerts have kept them coming back for more.
Much to his audience’s chagrin, however, Cray went decades before he issued his first concert recording. Unfortunately, neither his 2006 set Live from Across the Pond nor his 2008 endeavor Live at the BBC — the former was a contemporary career-spanning collection, while the latter culled a pair of vintage performances from his archives — did a satisfactory job of showcasing his talent. Cray’s latest offering Cookin’ in Mobile is the third performance-oriented outing that he has issued in the past four years. Although it, too, has its flaws, the effort’s best moments sufficiently capture the urgency Cray brings to his material whenever he steps onto a stage.
Prior to recording his latest studio endeavor This Time, Cray took the opportunity to tinker with the rhythm section of his band. He lured bass player Richard Cousins back into his ensemble, and with Cousins’ input, he hired Tony Braunagel to serve as his drummer. Considering the overlapping history of the members of Cray’s group — keyboard player Jim Pugh has been a part of the outfit for more than two decades — it’s not surprising that the chemistry of the refurbished collective blossomed immediately. As a result, Cookin’ in Mobile features some remarkably tight interplay among the musicians.
Throughout Cookin’ in Mobile, which was recorded earlier this year, Cray and his ensemble succeed in expanding the songs beyond the polished professionalism of their studio counterparts. Lotta Lovin’ assumes an air of desperation before erupting in a gut-wrenching expression of heartache and pain, while his cover of the Mississippi Sheiks’ Sitting on Top of the World is filled with crushing loneliness. Elsewhere, One in the Middle follows a different path, one that leads to spiritual rebirth. Smoking Gun, a mainstay of his performances, charges determinedly forward, propelled as much by its steady rhythmic undercurrent as it is by Cray’s energetic interjections. Even tracks from This Time show some signs of life, shedding their smooth exteriors to reveal personas that are gruffer and more incendiary.
Cookin’ in Mobile isn’t always completely successful. On Love 2009, for example, Cray merely swaps influences: Sam Cooke for Lou Rawls. Nevertheless, hints of Jimi Hendrix surface here and there in both Cray’s guitar playing and his vocal performances. This subtle shift — which essentially is an elevation of something that has always lurked within his work — ignites cuts like I Can’t Fail and Times Makes Two. Ultimately, it constructs a better case for Cray’s durability than most of his efforts have. ½
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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