This is a great album, and it gets better with every listen…
Now it might be my imagination, but I think there has been something of a reversion to purist blues recently, and for me, that’s a good thing. Most modern blues musicians diversify into other areas, but many of them seem to be coming back. Kenny Wayne Shepherd seemed to be leaving the blues way behind with his 2017 album Lay It On Down, tending instead towards pop-rock and soul, but the gist of his recent Straight To You: Live DVD was firmly in blues territory. Joanne Shaw-Taylor even named her recent set The Blues Album, to differentiate it from the blues-rock hybrid she had been specialising in. Joanna Connor usually mixes elements of R’n’B, jazz and soul into her output, but her 4801 South Indiana Avenue was a set of covers of vintage blues songs, produced, like The Blues Album and Larry McCray’s Blues Without You, by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith’s label Keeping The Blues Alive.
Ironically, McCray says of his new album that “it allows others to see me as more than a blues musician,” and “The songs are reflective of my broad taste in music.” But for me, it’s a full-on blues set, and I love it. That’s not to say it’s all straight-ahead 12-bar pub rock by any means; there is plenty of light and shade in there, shot through with with tight stops, complex arrangements and excellent musicianship. But it’s 65 minutes of pure blues in the tradition of BB King, Buddy Guy, Albert King et al, with a large helping of Robert Cray, especially in the vocal delivery.
And let’s make no mistake, McCray is an excellent musician, wringing tears and smiles out of his guitar in equal measure, with an excellent voice to boot. This is a great album, and it gets better with every listen. Also, it gets better as it goes on, with most of the highlights, for me at least, in the second half. And that’s not a bad recommendation, because the opener and lead single Arkansas, is a great way to kick off – a straight-ahead blues autobiography about his early days on the farm down south, and the influence of his big sister who taught him to play guitar. The second number, Without Love it Doesn’t Matter, is 1950s old-school, with a Fats Domino-type piano rhythm and thumping snare, possibly a tad out of joint with the rest of the album. But this is followed by Good Die Young, which is just superb, with McCray harmonising with the horn section, and being joined by female backing vocals. It’s as tight as you like, with volume and rhythm changes aplenty. Down To The Bottom is a showcase for guest musician, Gov’t Mule front man Warren Haynes, a rolling, country spiritual which builds to a soaring answerback duet between guitar and slide.
I love the way that last slide chord just hangs on after everything else stops, then the next number comes in over the top: Breaking News is a cabaret-type ballad, as cool as they come, with a Sade-like rhythm, solo sax, strings, ticking drumbeat and all. The vocals are Robert Cray all the way; a soul number with tinkling piano deep in the background, and a real highlight. Joanna Connor plays guitar on Drinkin’ Liquor And Chasin’ Women, and Joe Bonamassa himself on the funky Mr. Easy, but to be honest, the best parts are where McCray has the stage to himself. The title track for instance, Blues Without You, is dedicated to his friend and long-time manager Paul Koch, who died suddenly last year – and this is a barn-stormer of a track. Starting as a minor key blues ballad with smoky muted trumpet, it builds to a soul number with crying horns and soaring guitar over swelling strings, stopping mid-phrase on a non-resolved chord. It’s a masterpiece, and deserves recognition.
This is followed by No More Crying, a major key country soul blues ballad about someone on their death bed, and despite the subject matter, is given a joyful and uplifting treatment. “No more crying, no more pain – no more sufferin’,” sings McCray, along with sweet, clear-toned guitar playing. The smooth and funky blues of Don’t Put Your Dreams To Bed, with its tambourine rhythm, is an excellent mood-lifter, and then McCray finishes off with a simple, solo effort, one acoustic guitar and one voice, singing I Play The Blues.
McCray has been playing a long time, and has won awards and recognition along the way, but it’s only now, in his early 60s, that he is breaking ground in the UK. And once again, it’s largely down to the production and promotion skills of Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, who have made a habit of lifting worthy purveyors of the blues into the limelight where they should have been all along. Larry McCray is worthy.
Larry McCray’s new album Blues Without You is released by KTBA Records and is available from https://shop.jbonamassa.com/collections/larry-mccray