Blues Bytes


July/August 2011

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Robert Cray
Midnight Stroll
Hightone Records

Robert CrayBy 1990, Robert Cray was a few years removed from the monster success of Strong Persuader. His follow-up, 1988’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, had been a disappointment, which in a way could have been expected. Its predecessor would have been hard to top no matter what, but other than the title track, there was little memorable about it.

Those who had followed Cray’s career from the beginning wondered if it was just a bump in the road or if possibly he had hit a creative wall of sorts. When Midnight Stroll hit the racks in the late summer of 1990, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Young Bob was back with one of his best recordings.

What was different about this release? Though Cray had always played the blues from the soul side of the street, this disc featured a more pronounced lean toward soul. Cray’s vocals were as sweet as ever, but on some tracks he definitely roughens things up. On tracks like the opener, “The Forecast (Calls For Pain),” he added a bit of growl to his singing, at least more so than most of his previous recordings. On the next cut, the Cray-penned “These Things,” driven by his rhythm section (Richard Cousins – bass, Kevin Hayes – drums, Tim Kaihatsu – guitar) and by the Memphis-steeped keyboards of Jimmy Pugh, Cray really goes to town, testifying, roaring, and even screaming a couple of times.

Many of the songs rank with Cray’s best all time. “The Forecast (Calls For Pain)” was the latest masterpiece from Dennis Walker. Like several other great tracks, it was made even better by the presence of the Memphis Horns (Andrew Love – tenor sax, Wayne Jackson – trumpet/trombone). Listed as guest stars on Cray’s previous two albums, the Horns got equal billing with the band this time around. “Bouncin’ Back,” another Walker original, had all the flavor of a Stax recording from twenty-five years earlier (it was, in fact, later covered by Memphis soul queen Ann Peebles, as well as Texas soul man, Ernie Johnson).

“Consequences,” written by Kevin Hayes, Bonnie Hayes, and David Nagler, ranks with Cray’s best ever, on a level with anything he did on Strong Persuader. A lot of this has to do with Cray’s performance, from the muscular guitar work to the vocals that perfectly capture the anguish of the lyrics. The Memphis Horns drive the track to an even higher plane.

Cray’s own compositions continued to improve considerably. “These Things,” the simmering “The Things You Do To Me,” and the intense “Move A Mountain” rank with some of his best work. He also collaborated with Walker on the funky title track that closes the album.

I’m not sure how well Midnight Stroll did with the record-buying public. To me, it ranks with his best recordings, certainly just below Strong Persuader and Bad Influence, and just above False Accusations and Shame + a Sin. Certainly, it’s one of the most spirited efforts Cray has produced so far. He has continued to mine the soul side of blues on subsequent albums, but few of them have been able to match Midnight Stroll for sheer intensity and fire from start to finish.

--- Graham Clarke


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