In the parade of powerful female artists — Ruthie Foster, Judy Collins, Natalie McMaster, Patty Larkin and Rory Block — across our stages this week, soulful bluesman Robert Cray stands out, performing at The Egg tonight.
Cray stands out for other reasons: He’s a consummate artist who has grown into his early promise to exemplify a rare sort of perfection. His early (1980s) albums with producer/songwriter Dennis Walker put the blues back on the pop charts after a long absence — a singular feat of writing, performing and production that earned a super-rare A+ from rock critic Robert Christgau for 1986’s “Strong Persuader.”
Cray led first with hyperaccurate guitar playing, light and agile with waves of feeling. But then he developed vocal chops to match. For more than 20 years, he has been the whole, soulful, authentic yet innovative package.
He makes extraordinary albums, and he plays compelling shows with the stable, solid band he’s led for decades. The Robert Cray Band performs tonight at 7:30 p.m. at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany). Tickets are $29.50. Phone 473-1845 or visit www.theegg.org.
Foster and McMaster
Also at The Egg this week, and staying in the soul-blues department, Ruthie Foster sings on Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $24.
Brian McElhiney has more to say in this edition on Foster (click here); but let me make a recommendation of my own. At Jazz Fest in New Orleans in May, Foster more than held her own with the Warren Haynes Band — a virtuoso crew beefed up with New Orleans masters. Foster was one of them, singing across the stage from Dr. John, in front of a big horn section, and singing the place down.
The Cape Breton singer-fiddler-dancer Natalie McMaster also performs at The Egg, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Yes, she does all three at once, and it’s remarkable to see and hear. She’s a traditionalist, to a point, reaching back to ancestral roots, and you can hear the sounds of home in her 10 albums. But she also lives comfortably in a modern world where diverse influences spin around her, and she samples them gleefully.
For example, anybody who missed drummer JD Blair from Victor Wooten’s band recently at The Egg might be amazed to see him drumming behind McMaster, laying down funky beats for a feel that’s authentically Celtic soul. (As Shania Twain flashily launches her Vegas engagement, it’s worth mentioning that JD also played with Twain at what’s now the Times Union Center.) Blair and McMaster duet in most shows, with him drumming and her tap-dancing. Her band also comprises piano, bass, guitar and cello.
Tickets for Natalie McMaster are $29.50.
An old pro
Brian McElhiney tells you about Judy Collins (appearing tonight at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall) if you click here, but let me put in a word for the opening act, pop troubadour Jimmy Webb. Better known for writing than singing, Webb emerged from relative quiet to launch a series of solo shows a few years ago at WAMC: eloquent and elegant song suites spiced with stories of the greats who have recorded his tunes.
He has about a million of them (the likes of “Up, Up and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “MacArthur Park,” “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”) so an opening slot might be a bit confining. But he’s also an old pro (we were born the same day, same year), and he has a relatively new album to sample, too: “Just Across the River.”
In other words, don’t be late.
Eighth Step virtuosos
The same with Patty Larkin and Rory Block on Saturday at the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater (432 State St., Schenectady): Brian talks with and about Larkin, so let me tell you about Block.
You’d hardly know she lives just down the road and across the river in Chatham, considering how seldom she plays here. But this makes each appearance a treasure. Maybe she makes herself scarce for the same high-integrity artistic reason Pat Metheny does. When I grumbled to him once about how long ago a previous show was, he explained that he wants to be fresh every time he comes back to a place; with new music or a different band.
By that measure, Block manages the miraculous with old blues songs. She refreshes the style through sheer technical brilliance and total command of the feel.
Larkin led an all-woman, all-guitarist show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall a few years ago, and it was so strong that I really hope Larkin and Block play together on Saturday. They are very different guitarists: Block straight out of the blues where the guitar is a voice on its own terms and Larkin from folk where the guitar frames the voice. But when she solos, Larkin reveals another, fully articulate voice/instrument. Both are virtuosos of the first rank, with superb skills splendidly put to service of their songs.
Generally, I agree with my Gazette colleague John McLoughlin’s complaint that news organizations empower even the lamest boneheads by citing their tweets and Facebook posts commenting on news stories.
(Pardon me, John, if I stated your beef more harshly than you did.)
Nonetheless, let me share these positive experiences with you here.
For days, I had this persistent, maddening “earworm,” a melody stuck in my mind. I couldn’t shake, find or identify it. Then on Facebook one day, I opened a video that David Janower had shared of a boys’ choir singing while diminishing, singer by singer, until just one remained to finish the song and make an appeal about helping children. Well, that was the song. That was my earworm. So I messaged David, the intrepid director of Albany Pro Musica and professor at the University at Albany. He identified it as “Mad World,” and I Google-searched and found this: “The moving ballad ‘Mad World’ was written and originally recorded by English synth-pop duo Tears for Fears in 1982 and was later released on their debut album ‘The Hurting.’ ”
Dave Suarez was one of the best photographers on the 1980s rock scene here, shooting way more J.B. Scott’s shows than I could ever get to. He’s in Chicago now, but he’s on Facebook, so I can see his photos from then and now. Still a music fan, he recounted this last week: “Went to Pete Townshend’s book signing tonight. Was behind a line of people bringing up their [single] copies of his book to be signed. When I got up to the table I plopped down five books and said, ‘Thanks for all the great music and taking care of all my Christmas shopping.’ He looked down and said, ‘Five books?’ — then in an incredulous tone: ‘You have five friends?’ I replied, ‘I do now!’ He laughed and shook my hand.”
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.