Robert Cray – Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm (2017)

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Though mainly thought of as a premium blues singer and guitarist, I tend to see Robert Cray as part of a long line of great soul men who also happens to play maximal guitar. For his latest creation Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm, this Al Green has got his own Willie Mitchell: superstar producer and drummer Steve Jordan, who’s already helmed four of Cray’s albums is going to do it again, this time with some genuine Memphis help.

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm — dropping on April 28, 2017 from Jordan’s Jay-Vee Records — has Cray crooning and shredding as only he can do it, as always, and Jordan lends his in-demand drum work. That’s already hard to beat. But add the core of Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records house band? Sheeeit.

Though Mitchell and guitarist Teenie Hodges are not around anymore, the famed Hi Rhythm band still has Rev. Charles Hodges (organ and piano), brother Leroy ‘Flick’ Hodges (bass) and Archie ‘Hubbie’ Turner (keyboards) alive and kicking and they were all drafted to complete this unstoppable force to help Cray and Jordan make a record that proudly announces the name of this special meeting right on the cover.

These old hands get right to work in Mitchell’s old Royal Studios in Memphis like it’s 1972 all over again. Bill Withers’ “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” has that same gritty groove and even similar backing strings as Withers’ original recording but Jordan’s back beat is more insistent and Cray invests more gusto into the vocal. End the end though it’s his trademark blues licks that put this version firmly ahead of Bill’s. O.V. Wright was a blues-soul singer who made some of his best songs under Mitchell’s supervision and back by Hi Rhythm…and one of Cray’s heroes. So it’s a given a Wright song was going to get covered, and that song is the tough groovin’ “You Must Believe In Yourself.”

Cray dug up some deeper cuts from Sir Mack Rice of “Mustang Sally” fame, first with “I Don’t Care” but the funky rhythm guitar he lays down on “Honey Bad” is honey badassed even before he makes his axe cry and moan on the solo break. A pair of tunes from another celebrated composer of early 70s Southern soul, Tony Joe White, also get the Cray treatment: “Aspen, Colorado” is made even more authentic by White himself on board on blues harp and rhythm guitar. “Don’t Steal My Love” is one of Tony Joe’s psychedelic trances and that gives Cray an opening to stretch out and jam a bit.

Cray reaches even further back, all the back to proto-rock ‘n’ roll rhythm and blues with the ‘5’ Royales tune “I’m With You.” It’s assisted by doo wop harmonies courtesy of The Masqueraders and with so much space for Cray to romp with his guitar, it had to be broken up into two parts.

There are only a couple of new Cray originals, but he makes the most of the limited space he allotted himself. The very timely political protest paean “Just How Low” takes obvious swipes at Trump, and the anger can be felt in his guitar. Still, “The Way We Are” gets the nod for being such a pleasing update to the soul ballads that clearly inspired Cray.

Long-time followers of Robert Cray are already well aware of his influences and his connection to the soul and blues of his youth are no secret. But look again at that title and you know that this time he doubled down on it, getting closer to those influences than ever before by having guys in the room who were there when such soulful sides were cut. And with Willie Mitchell no longer with us, he could hardly find a more sympathetic producer than Steve Jordan to take us back to that magical time.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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  • Michael Smethurst

    Excellent and informative review, thank you. It looks like Robert has brought at least some off the band to the UK for his shows next week. Not sure if Steve Jordan is here.

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