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Signs of the times
Robert Cray moves beyond the blues

Blues guitarist Robert Cray, a soulful player whos kept a pretty low-key profile, steps out in a couple of remarkable ways on his new Time Will Tell (Sanctuary). A consummate player, hes added new elements to the sturdy, dependable sound that hes been perfecting for decades a straightforward foundation of supple soul rhythms, smooth yet powerful vocals, and virtuoso guitar work. Whats more important and more surprising is that Time Will Tell finds the soft-spoken Cray weighing in on political matters for the first time in his 23-year recording career, with sharp criticisms of the American-led war in Iraq.

The inspiration? "Just frustration," says Cray over the phone from his home in LA. "I was frustrated with everything I was hearing about the war, and with knowing we were going to war when, in my opinion, there were better diplomatic options." But he isnt critical of just the Bush administration hes also not happy about the way the media made the war in Iraq seem inevitable even as the rest of the world was debating its merits. "The major networks were all saying, Were going to war, so just follow along. It was like a gang mentality. It was so obnoxious and so arrogant. I felt that I had to say something about it."

Cray, wholl be playing the Cape Cod Melody Tent and the South Shore Music Circus next weekend, doesnt waste any time: the opening "Survivor" includes this salient verse: "Take a little schoolboy and teach him who to hate/Then send him to the desert for the oil near Kuwait." On the equally topical "Distant Shore" and several other tunes, he moves away from the moody soul grooves that typified his two previous albums, Take Your Shoes Off and Shoulda Been Home (both Rykodisc) and into more eclectic terrain that at times brings to mind Beatlesque psychedelia and the fusiony rock of Steely Dan. A sitar or rather a guitar rigged to sound like a sitar dominates the poppy "Up from the Sky," which also has the Turtle Island String Quartet adding a layer of unnecessary padding.

One key to the shift in styles was keyboardist Jimmy Pugh, a long-time Cray sideman who stepped up to produce Time Will Tell. The disc was recorded after Cray wound up his deal with Rykodisc, so they were free to do as much musical exploring as they wanted. In concert, the connection between Cray and Pugh is palpable, especially when Pugh stretches out on long, blues-drenched organ solos, reaching for peaks while Cray leans away from the microphone, listening intently as he comps and adds his own fills to crank up the intensity. In the studio, however, Pugh played a different role, bringing the Turtle Island Quartet and two horns from Sly and the Family Stone on board to take part in the sessions. Cray admits that adding strings to his recordings is something hes wanted to do for a long time, in part because of his love for the 60s soul he grew up on. "Some of my favorite soul songs, by Bobby Bland, Sam Cooke, are those ballads where the strings sound really cool."

Although the differences both in tone and in content between Time Will Tell and his previous work are patent, there are also plenty of moments on the new disc when the old, soulful, bluesy Cray takes control. Drummer Kevin Hayes and his wife, pop rocker Bonnie Hayes, provided two of the funkier cuts, the stomping "Back Door Slam" and the crooning "What You Need (Good Man)," both of which play to Crays strengths as a singer and a guitarist. When the subject matter shifts away from Iraq, Cray generally finds himself doing what he does best playing the part of the restless lover. When his guitar takes over in the bluesy "Your Pal," each note hits like a needle into the center of a nerve.

And when Cray gets personal in "Survivor," he reflects on, well, his former lack of reflection. "The good old days," he intones, "were such a waste of time." Its a subject that comes up in our conversation as well: "Its starting to hit me now that I should be paying more attention to the world and be more aware of my surroundings." He says this seriously, then lets out a self-depreciating laugh and concedes, "Better late than never."

The Robert Cray Band play the Cape Cod Melody Tent next Thursday, July 31, and the South Shore Music Circus the following Sunday, August 3, both with John Hiatt and the Goners; call (617) 931-2787.

Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2003
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