Robert Cray Blues innovator still keeps ’em guessing

By John Benson

For MORE THAN 30 years, The Robert Cray Band has been spreading its own brand of the blues. Led by five-time Grammy Award-winning singer-guitarist Robert Cray, easily viewed as a leader within his genre, the 57-year-old admits there is still a segment of the audience who questions whether he’s a true bluesman. Take for instance his 1986 breakout album “Strong Persuader,” which included the hit single “Smoking Gun.”

“I get a lot of grief from people that are way into the blues who say we don’t play the blues, which I can understand because we incorporate a lot of things into it,” said Cray, calling from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It’s always been that way. That was the main reason why records like ‘Strong Persuader’ got recognition. When you dissect that album, how much blues is on that record? None. It’s a combination of everything we grew up listening to.”

Apparently, die-hard blues fans aside, the majority of Cray’s fans have become accustomed to the Georgia native’s distinct blend of bridging the traditional and contemporary. More so, whenever you put on a Cray track, it’s a given that you could hear anything from R&B, pop and rock to soul and old-school blues. The idea of keeping his audience guessing was behind his latest album, “This Time,” which features the return of longtime Cray Band bassist and childhood friend Richard Cousins.

“In the last studio record, we wanted to showcase the new lineup — or the reconstituted lineup — by rediscovering the groove,” Cray said. “Just laying down a different groove and some more enthusiasm. After a while, I think for our kind of music, it was nice to make the changes to spark the whole thing. The groove was always a priority, but I think that there was more to be had. It takes a lineup move to find something different. I can try to change myself as much as possible, but I can also change the personnel around, so that’s what I did.”

Supporting his latest concert CD/DVD release, “Cookin’ In Mobile,” the grooving Robert Cray Band comes to Youngstown on Saturday for an outdoors show at Covelli Centre. Though music may be his life, Cray is also known in pop-culture trivia circles for his appearance in “Animal House” as a member of fictional band Otis Day & The Knights. It just so happened the classic ’70s film was filmed in Eugene, Ore., which at the time was home to the young blues guitarist.

“Being in the film means more to me now than it did to me then,” Cray said. “The whole thing was totally strange and a whirlwind experience, but it was a lot of fun. John Belushi was hanging out, coming into the bars and watching all of the bands play. And it was crazy on the set. [Director] John Landis could hardly get control of the whole situation. It was nuts.”

Cray’s part can be seen during the frat party with the song “Shout.” We’re guessing his shows today are just like that crazy “Animal House” scene.

“Well, we don’t move quite like that anymore,” Cray said, laughing. “But it’s a really good time.”

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