Robert Cray has never been a straight-up blues man -- the untamed, wailing kind whose sound erupts from a funky, swampy, almost-mystic place. Though he can go there whenever he pleases, the Georgia-born musician generally keeps the edges of his approach crisp and smooth. Various styles ripple through his blues base -- softening it at times, emboldening it other times.
"We've never played straight blues," says the artist, whose four-man outfit, the Robert Cray Band, performs at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Monday night. "I've always been an R&B; fan. I also like reggae and gospel and jazz. I don't jump into one bag."
And that's evident on his latest effort, the superb, self-produced Live From Across the Pond. The two-disc set, recorded in May during a weeklong stint at London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall, is Cray's first concert album and 16th release overall.
"We've had other opportunities to make live albums, and we've made live recordings," the singer-guitarist explains. "But the band played too tight or I'd lose my voice, so we didn't release that."
On Across the Pond, the playing is loose and spirited. Because the band was the opening act for Cray's longtime buddy Eric Clapton, there was pressure to keep the London shows concise but energetic. "When you're the opening act, you got to go out there and do it, all guns blazing, so to speak," says Cray, 53. "When you have a 40-minute set, you don't have much time to mess around in front of somebody else's audience."
Listening to the crowd's hoots and hollers throughout the album, it's hard to tell that the folks weren't in the house just to see the Robert Cray Band. The set kicks off with a reinvigorated version of "Phone Booth," a sassy blues hit for Cray in 1983 and one of his best songs. From there, the band -- Cray on guitar and vocals, Jim Pugh on keyboards, Kevin Hayes on drums and Karl Sevareid on bass -- mines the singer's underappreciated catalog, which spans more than 25 years. Cray and the guys manage to work a subtle reggae groove into "Poor Johnny." "Back Door Slam" folds in mild rock textures. Reminiscent of a smoother Syl Johnson, Cray's slightly twangy, rollicking vocals are more soulful and resonant these days. "We know the songs already, so we're gonna change it up every night," says the Los Angeles-based musician. "I'm not gonna play the same solo every night."
Now that Cray has toured and recorded with his band mates for more than a decade -- Pugh and Hayes have been on board since 1989, Sevareid since '92 -- the interplay is keen, nearly telepathic.
"It's really cool to work with the things that are not said," Cray says. "Every night on stage, you're hearing with different ears. I always like to relate it to when you're a juror and you have to ponder the evidence, and you wonder why others don't see the story as you do. The story is there and open to interpretations, open to different colors. You become complacent when you don't push the music."
And Cray isn't one to surrender to complacency. After more than 25 years of touring the globe and making fine albums (several of which have managed to go gold or multi-platinum with little to no promotion), Cray still finds different, fresher ways to twist and stretch the blues.
"It never gets old for me," says the private Cray, who lives quietly in L.A. with his wife when he's not on the road or in the studio. The two have no children. "I listen to a lot of music from the past -- Coltrane, Monk, Howlin' Wolf, Booker T. & the MG's -- for inspiration and ideas. I listen to all kinds of stuff, though. It all comes from different bags."
Just like his blues.
See the Robert Cray Band at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va., on Monday night at 7:30. Tickets are $49.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or going to ticketmaster.com.