Blue Notes: Robert Cray and Keb' Mo'
Anybody who got into the mood for the blues watching Robben Ford's outstanding performance at Sha Tin Town Hall a couple of weeks ago is spoiled for choice in new or upcoming releases.
Due in the racks and/or on the internet over the next month are new studio albums from Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Walter Trout and John Mayall - the latter still going strong at 80.
Two other important blues artists with anniversaries to celebrate, released albums in April.
From Robert Cray came In My Soul, while Keb' Mo' delivered Bluesamericana. Cray is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Robert Cray Band, and Keb' Mo', formerly known as Kevin Moore, marks the 20th anniversary of the release of his first solo album under that moniker.
Throughout their careers, both have taken an ecumenical and generally funky approach to the blues, incorporating elements of rock and particularly soul.
Mo's The Reflection, from 2011, was nominated for a Grammy as best blues album, but had the least blues content of any of his career. The production and arrangements on the album owed much to 1970s soul and R&B, and it found an artist better known for covering Robert Johnson songs crooning The Eagles' One of These Nights.
Bluesamericana takes him back into more familiar rootsy territory with an emphasis on the wide range of acoustic instruments he plays.
Mo', who was a record company staff songwriter and session player before his solo career took off in 1994, is particularly associated with resonator guitars, and electric lead and slide, but is also adept on banjo, harmonica and piano.
"There's still some very acoustic stuff on it, but it kind of started rocking a little bit, too," says Mo'. "The acoustic guitar leads … because I started each track with an acoustic instrument. The way I cut the record, I decided on my tempo, and I got my tempo right. Then I laid down a vocal with my guitar."
Stylistically the album has echoes of the music of the Mississippi Delta, Chicago, Texas and New Orleans street parades. Mo' is stronger on melody than most blues-based artists, and also writes thoughtful often socially conscious lyrics.
As the title suggests, other American roots styles are present - Ton Shinness' mandolin and Paul Franklin's pedal steel contribute some country music texture. But the backbone of the album is the blues. "I never set out to be a 'blues guy', " says Mo', "but the blues is very powerful and fuels what I do. The blues puts the 'realness' in it for me."
Cray, conversely, has been a "blues guy" since the get-go, but with In My Soul brings Stax '60s Memphis soul elements in his music to the fore. He even includes a Booker T and the MGs-style instrumental entitled Hip Tight Onions, alluding to the band's hit singles Hip Hug-Her, Time Is Tight, and Green Onions, on which he plays some well-placed licks in the manner of Steve Cropper.
As well as the usual original compositions, Cray performs a couple of Stax classics - Otis Redding's Nobody's Fault But Mine and Isaac Hayes and David Porter's Your Good Thing (Is About to End). A third cover gave the album its title - Bobby "Blue" Bland's Deep in My Soul, a slow-burning blues.
"I knew I wanted to do a Bobby Bland tune, and I was banging my head as to which one," says Cray. "I found one CD with a massive amount of Bland songs. I hadn't heard it for a long time. I brought it in, and everybody loved it. I didn't want to change it - just do it pretty straight up as a tribute to Bobby, who was one of my real heroes. He came to see us before he passed, about a year and a half ago, he came to a show with his wife and son and just hung out in the wings, and it was such a big honour, really cool."
Soul and the blues are close relations in any case, and Stax with Booker T & the MGs as the house rhythm section produced classic records in both genres.
Three noteworthy albums featuring multiple blues artists including Keb' Mo' and/or Robert Cray.
Showdown! (1985, Alligator Records): Grammy winner for best traditional blues album at the 1986 awards features Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Cray. One of the great blues albums of the '80s.
Lightning in a Bottle (2004, Columbia Legacy): the soundtrack to a concert film which offers some fascinating insights into the history of the blues, and an indication of where the music may be heading in the 21st century. Cray and Mo' both participate, as do B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt and many more. Available as a DVD.
- Honeydripper (2008, Rhino): a soundtrack from a John Sayles film set in a '50s Alabama juke joint. Music from Mo' and Gary Clark Jnr, who both also acted in the film, and from Mable John, Hank Williams and Ruth Brown.