Five-time Grammy Award-winning singer-guitarist-songwriter Robert Cray and his band (bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Dover Weinberg and drummer Terence F. Clark) seamlessly blended 100 minutes (with a two-song encore) of blues, rock, soul and R&B with skillfully-executed precision, taste, tone and dynamics before an appreciative, nearly sold-out crowd at Hoyt Sherman Theater in Des Moines on March 3.
The 64-year-old Cray demonstrated why he is one of only a handful of artists today who can attract mainstream audiences and satisfy diehard blues fans alike with a rare crossover appeal deeply rooted in authentic blues thanks to his stylistic soulful singing and six-string stinging. His performance in Des Moines spanned some of the highlights of his extraordinary career, including 1983’s “Phone Booth,” “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” from his landmark 1986 album “Strong Persuader” and 1990’s “Bouncin’ Back.”
Love ballads and other slow-burning soul numbers about life dominated the show, which prompted Cray on occasion to remind the audience that he’s “love proof.” Among them, were the Latin-tinged “You Had My Heart,” “Aspen, Colorado” and the politically-charged “Just How Low” from his 2017 album, “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm.”
By the end of the night, Cray and company received two well-deserved standing ovations in spite of the absence of popular songs like “Consequences,” “The Forecast (Calls For Pain)” and “Smoking Gun.” It not only spoke volumes about Cray’s deep catalog, but it reaffirmed the relevance of his new material and revealed reverence for his status as one of the world’s truly great bluesmen.
Cray will make two more appearances in Iowa this week, first at Riverside Casino & Golf Resort in Riverside on March 9, and March 10 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Sioux City.
Matt Woods, a three-time winner of the Iowa Blues Challenge and purveyor of traditional blues (Delta, Mississippi Hill-Country and Chicago), opened the show with a compact set of energetic, solo guitar blues that was warmly received by the audience and prompted some members to stand in ovation at its conclusion.
Woods’ driving, rhythmic style of electric finger-picking and slide guitar — in which he played rhythm and lead simultaneously — combined with his sparse, emotive vocals, revealed his passion and feel for pre-war and early post-war blues, as well as his intention to put his own stamp on them. The best examples of that on the night were two songs written by Woods — “Tornados Are Bad For Everyone” and “Snow Drivin’” — from his 2015 album “Sawdust and Gasoline,” which finished in the Top 5 of the International Blues Foundation’s “Best Self-Produced CD” competition.
— Michael Swanger