Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm
Here’s a wonderful pairing – Robert Cray (sweet soul voice, great guitar licks) and Steve Jordan (superb drummer and wunderkind producer). Completing this perfect connection is the decision to record in the still-running Royal Studios, home of Hi Records. You know Hi from Al Green, primarily, perhaps also records by Ann Peebles, a few others. With what’s left of the Hi Rhythm secion (Rev. Charles Hodges on organ and piano, Leroy Hodges on bass and Archie Turner on keys) Cray and Jordan lay down a set of obscure funk/soul/blues gems with a few Cray originals in there for good measure.
Jordan has managed to make John Mayer sound almost listenable and Keith Richards not just great – but worth listening to. So he’s no fluke-artist, he’s the real deal. Here he has the chops both behind the kit and behind the boards and brings out Cray’s inner soul singer. It’s always been there, but occasionally it languishes, not for skill as much as ideas…
Between them they’ve concocted one hell of a setlist – the covers are all deep cuts by the likes of The 5 Royals, Tony Joe White, Bill Withers and Sir Mack Rice (he who wrote Mustang Sally, surely one of the songs that made Cray want to get up and pinch down hard on the guitar strings…)
Tony Joe sits in – his sublime harmonic drifting subtly beneath Cray and the band on White’s composition, Aspen, Colorado. Before that we’ve heard Cray and band nail Withers’ superb The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.
Cray was part of an 80s blues-boom but as early as 1990 – if not earlier – he was showing soul licks and chops and as the horns got a little too heavy across his late 90s releases he continued to develop one hell of a soul voice, the stinging attack of his guitar always a threat, though sometimes buried. Here on You Must Believe In Yourself we get to hear that guitar/voice/horns combo in a setting as perfect as it ever could be – Jordan’s drums stomping down hard, his hi-hat and bass-drum marking the territory, the vintage-soul players doing what they’ve always done, guided by their spot-on intuition. And Cray sounding superb when he spits and wails from the guitar, his vocals always sublime.
On his own ballad, You Had My Heart, Jordan sets the tempo and mood with a lovely stroll across the toms. Cray’s vocal pulls us in and when he gets to rip on the guitar he shows, once again, what he’s always had.
I’m With You, from the 5 Royals’ catalogue, gets a vocal treatment and then a victory-lap, album-closing encore with Cray going to town by riding the six strings. It’s so pleasing. So thoroughly on.
There’s a throwback here and there to the Cray of very old (Honey Bad) goes back to Bad Influence, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Strong Persuader but it sounds so much sharper, so precise, and yet with life and soul there in (between) the grooves.
A couple of years ago I thought he’d made the best album of his career – and I’ve been on board since Bad Influence blew me away, at a very young age. Actually, he’s just made the album of his career right now, right here. If he’s sounded better I’ve certainly not heard it. This is a must-have, a must-hear. A triumph. He sounds fighting fit and as good as he’s ever sounded. And you can’t really ask for more than that.