Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm: Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm

 

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm
Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm
(Jay-Vee)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Royal Studios may lag behind Sun and Stax in most music histories about great Memphis recording locations, but with a stellar output that included such Hi label greats like Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and of course Al Green, it remains one of the world’s most famous. So when blues/soulman Robert Cray and producer Steve Jordan went looking for a location to record the former’s next album, the still active Royal was a logical destination. The cherry on top is the participation of three ageing but still active members of the famous Hi Rhythm Section including the great Rev. Charles Hodges on keyboards and his brother/bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges to slather on some extra Memphis mojo.   

Open the sleeve of Cray’s first studio set in three years and there’s a picture of him with his Hi backing musicians standing in front of a wall spray painted in huge letters with “I Love (heart) Soul,” which is all you need to know about these eleven tracks. Any fan of Cray’s music realizes he has always been more of a rootsy R&B singer/songwriter influenced by the great O.V. Wright than a straight ahead blues guy, making this no major departure. Even as far back as 1990’s Midnight Stroll he was working with the Memphis Horns, so this pilgrimage to Royal Studios to record in the home of the music that has inspired him is something of a logical stop on his thirty-plus year career arc.

The songs are mostly obscure covers (Cray contributes three originals), unusual for a guy who prides himself on his compositions. But with a few gems from the catalogs of Sir Mack Rice and Tony Joe White, who even trekked from his Nashville home to be a part of the sessions, and deep tracks from Bill Withers (“The Same Love that Made Me Laugh” nails that gutsy, organ drenched Hi groove) and The “5” Royales (the 50s doo-wop “I’m With You” gets a two part treatment with a vocal workout followed by one of Cray’s distinctive, stabbing staccato guitar solos), this feels as authentic, rugged and well, soulful as the choicest items from the Hi label catalog.

The highlights come fast and furious, starting with a horn blasted, sweat soaked, rocking version of O.V. Wright’s “You Must Believe in Yourself” that shows Cray can replace his typically placid, smooth vocals with some harsh howling, even pushing into a ragged falsetto as the song grinds through its paces in just under four minutes. Tony Joe White’s two contributions range from the “Rainy Night in Georgia” styled honeyed groove of “Aspen, Colorado” to the tough locomotive chug of “Don’t Steal My Love.” He contributes to both, adding his stamp of approval to Cray’s heartfelt and powerful readings. Cray’s smoldering “You Had My Heart” is a worthy addition as it sways along with stripped down ominous percussion and a sweet/salty vocal.

Cray has been criticized — rightfully at times — for repeating his distinctive if somewhat staid style for many of his almost 20 studio albums. But this one pushes outside those boundaries. It plays to Cray’s established vocal and guitar strengths while injecting just enough grit and grease to spur him to new heights.

Is it too early to request part 2?