The Egg turns blue this month. The bulbous building that Suzzy Roche said looks like the legs and ass of a very fat man, the venue They Might Be Giants sketched in song and video (http://tmbw.net/wiki/Lyrics:Albany) rocks four blues shows.
Who better to launch the string than Robert Cray? The guitarist/singer who put the blues back on the charts, the Zelig of the blues who played with everybody, everywhere; returns to The Egg on Friday.
Zelig? Right. Go watch “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978); open a cold one first, and check the party scene with Otis Day & the Knights: That’s Cray, then 25, playing bass.
A few years later (1980) came Cray’s debut album “Who’s Been Talkin’ ” and regional (Pacific Northwest) touring success. On his fourth album (of 20 to date; 15 charted) “Strong Persuader” (1986), Cray broke through to mainstream success.
Mixing blues grit with R&B sophistication, it confessed infidelity and other failings with such candor and skill that it sold two million copies, won the first of his five Grammys, topped many best of the year polls and became the first blues album in decades to hit the pop charts. On sheer excellence, Cray kicked open the door for fellow blues artists.
Soon hailed as a peer by the reigning giants, Cray joined Keith Richards’ all-star Chuck Berry tribute (1987) Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll,” he appeared in Tina Turner’s “Break Every Rule” TV special that same year, played on John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” comeback album (1992) and recorded in Memphis with Willie Mitchell who produced Al Green’s records; Mitchell even gave Cray a song, the bottomless sad “Love Gone to Waste.”
A frequent guest with Eric Clapton on tour and Clapton’s Crossroads festivals, Cray also played the 1990 Alpine Valley, Wisconsin show that sadly was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s last; 26 years ago last Saturday.
Impressive as these all-star shows look in his bio, perhaps Cray’s greatest achievement is maintaining consistent high quality on his own albums, with his own band. This compact, capable unit still includes bassist Richard Cousins, who’s played with Cray since the beginning, rocking bars and frat parties and sleeping on fans’ couches and floors. At The Egg on Friday, Cray and Cousins play with Les Falconer, drums and vocals; and Dover Weinberg, keyboards.
Cray has such (well-earned) confidence in his band that he’s recorded many of his albums live, including “4 Nights of 40 Years Live,” a two-CD, one-DVD set that hit on Sunday. Onstage or in the studio, Cray makes it all sound deceptively easy; his clean-sting guitar style so evolved, his firm-flow vocals so soulful and subtle. In his quietly modest way, Cray has claimed for himself the whole span of musical styles that grew from primal blues.
One more, “Zelig” item: In 1985, Cray played on the tremendous – Best Traditional Blues Recording Grammy winner – “Showdown!” album with Albert “Iceman” Collins and Johnny Clyde Copeland, now both deceased.
Copeland’s daughter Shemekia was then just six years old. She opens for Cray on Friday at The Egg, just two months after wowing fans at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
On the road with her father at 16, Shemekia released her debut album “Turn the Heat Up!” (1998) at 19; her second, “Wicked” (2000) featured R&B hero Ruth Brown. Copeland won the 2016 Blues Music Award for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year just before all but setting fire to SPAC in June.
I wrote, “Torch-voiced Shemekia Copeland sang she was ‘Married to the Blues’ but didn’t want a divorce and slammed the publicly religious who worship ‘Somebody Else’s Jesus’ in a smoking soul-blues set.” Her drummer Robin Gould was the best non-blues percussionist I saw all that day; her band also includes guitarists Arthur Neilson and Ken “Willie” Scandlin and bassist Kevin Jenkins. Her latest album (of eight) is the hot “Outskirts of Love.”
The Robert Cray Band and Shemekia Copeland play The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany). 8 p.m. $34.50, $29.50. 473-1845 www.theegg.org
Later this month, The Egg presents more blues: veteran (now 82) guitarist/keyboardist/harmonica player/singer/bandleader John Mayall on Sept. 16, Chicago guitarist Elvin Bishop (former Butterfield Blues Band stalwart alongside the late, great Mike Bloomfield) on Sept. 18, and Martin Barre (ex-Jethro Tull guitarist) on Sept. 23.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]