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Musical Road Map: Entry One

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Editor’s Note: Zack Smith is taking his work with him on vacation. He will be checking in periodically this summer to recount his American musical experiences.

Sometimes the best shows are the surprises, the ones you know nothing about, as opposed to the ones that you have built up in your mind for weeks. I found this to be the case Sunday night when I caught the Robert Cray Band at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

First, a note about the venue: The Boulder Theater is an old art deco movie theater that has been converted into a music venue. It has beautiful paintings on the walls and ornate features throughout. The bottom floor has a bar, some tables, and a spacious standing room only area in front of the stage. There is also a balcony up top with seats for people who would like to sit and enjoy the music. The space is comparable to the Shanghai Grand Stage, where I saw James Brown, Al Jarreau and George Benson, and The Roots on separate evenings. I would say the Robert Cray show drew about 500 people, which is great for a Sunday night. Most of the crowd was middle-aged and that explains the 7:30 sharp start time, which surprised me a bit.
Boulder, Colorado is an old town, but also new and exciting, due to the fact that it is home to the largest colleges in Colorado, the University of Colorado. It is a forward-thinking town, with lots of students, older liberals, and those peculiar American animals, hippies. If you like organic food, hybrid cars, beautiful mountains, nag champa incense, and patchouli oil, then this is the place for you. Boulder also boasts a great music scene.

A band called the Delta Sonics started the show. They played traditional blues tracks with good energy and spirit. They had some interesting features to the band, including the tallest bass player I have ever seen (who also looked like Lurch from the Addam’s Family), a left-handed drummer, a bald-headed singer (who also whaled on the chromatic harmonica), and a six year-old who was billed as the world’s youngest blues harmonica player (he joined them for two numbers). Their guitarist rocked on every solo he took and there was a funny moment where the frontman played the chords on the neck while the guitarist strummed. The Sonics’ set was proficient, if not original, but that’s what you get sometimes with the blues. It’s more of a revivalist movement. The frontman tried to stir up some excitement with his fiery harmonica playing and gyrations (he even left the stage to play in the audience), but the crowd was still sparse at this early juncture.

After a short intermission, the Robert Cray Band got right to work. Cray, who has won multiple Grammy awards, is one of the most accomplished and famous blues guitarists working today, carrying on a legacy that stretches back to the work songs and spirituals sung by slaves in the most ignominious portion of American history. He names Albert Collins, Albert King, Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, and Muddy Waters as his blues heroes and has played with other great musicians, such as Eric Clapton. During this set he was joined by his regular band, which included Jim Pugh on piano and organ, Richard Cousins on bass, and Tony Braunagel on drums. Pugh showed off his skills at many different points of the program, soloing with dexterity and soul. Cousins is your basic lock-down bassist. He lurked in the shadows, writhing spasmodically. He looked an eel engaged in rhythmic dance. The drummer was also steady, if unspectacular, which is what you need for a blues band. The guitar and vocals get pushed to the forefront, bringing us to the star of the show.

Robert Cray is a terrific musician. I first saw him about 10 years ago in the Denver Botanical Gardens and was amazed by the power and tone of his voice. To me, it sounded like a cross between the high-end majesty of Al Green and the soulful growl of B.B. King. On Sunday night, his voice again cut through everything. He also pulled out a competent falsetto, which he was smart enough to keep for special moments. On guitar, he displays amazing phrasing and, again, great tone. The jangle sounded like a bag of quarters being dropped on the subway floor. He played leads, accents, and solos with a silvery twang that swept concert-goers off their tapping feet and took them down South.

Because the set was on Sunday night and the old-timers in the audience had to get to work the next day, Cray set a blistering pace. There was no chitchat between songs, just a genial, “Thank you so very much,” and then away we went again and again. He must have played at least 15 poppy blues/bluesy pop bombs in the span of an hour, one after another. He also busted out a great little reggae tune toward the beginning of the set. After a final couple of encore tracks, with Cousins feeding his bass back for effect, Cray said goodnight and all the folks hit the exits, way past their bedtimes.

Accomplished and traditional blues music is something that Shanghai seems to lack a bit. If you are in the mood for some mourning, check out The House of Jazz and Blues or Beedee’s on Tuesday nights. Or you can hope that Robert Cray will visit sometime soon. I sure do.

Until next time…

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