Robert Cray likes to play guitar solos using clear, easy-to-follow concepts for the above-average listener.
He articulates every note, and often shapes them with his mouth. This all takes skill and requires him to play contained, inside himself.
His fan base comes to see this with loyalty. Thursday night at the Egg’s Hart Theater, Cray’s four-man group played an understated set of music — some from the depths of the Mississippi Delta, some Chicago shuffle, mixed in with straight rock.
His blues is not nasty or sweaty; it delivers more like the soundtrack to a cool scotch commercial, polished, classy and packaged. And it’s good.
Cray is more emotional with his vocals than his guitar, like in “Right Next Door (It’s Because of Me),” where he strummed a hypnotizing riff while chanting “It’s because of me.”
He led the show with songs like “It Doesn’t Show,” and “The Forecast Calls for Pain.” Classic blues themes ran through these numbers, mostly tales of women gone and not coming back, but not a lot of whiskey or gambling.
The three men on rhythm were on the money: Jim Pugh on keyboards, Tony Braunagel on drums, and Richard Cousins — who has been playing with Cray on and off for decades — on bass. It would have been nice to let those guys stretch a little, but their job was to create the canvas for Cray.
They pulled up well when the moment called for some extra muscle, and pulled back subtly as well during his softer thoughts. Clearly they’ve been doing this for a while.
A three-person rhythm section offered a perfect balance behind Cray, offering space for him to move, leaving holes to fill — or not — a tasteful, sparse sound that you don’t get often these days.
Cray finally let loose midway through the show for two solo rounds. He can rip it, but Thursday night, and most nights, he loyalty was to the song, and delivering smooth, well-crafted packages.
He’s a likable gentleman on stage, making friendly comments between songs — of course taking a jab at the Egg’s structure: “Fried, scrambled, hard-boiled, over easy?”
There were a few weak pop tunes, but Cray knew to dig deep into these, singing and playing with a little more depth. Some he saved, some he didn’t.
The set was short. They returned for a two-song encore that rounded out the night, roaring out for the first tune, and for the first time of the night, with “Chicken in the Kitchen.” Employing double-entendre lyrics introduced by blues players in the 1920s, the whole band leaned into this one, Cousins rumbling his base line underneath to push Cray a little. They were cooking here; too bad Cray cut it off.
He followed with a ballad, “Nothing but Love” from his latest record. The band hushed for Cray to show his lightest chops. The words were brave, but the delivery fell short of his harder stuff.
The mostly-filled theater seemed satisfied with their night. Cray’s a class act, and you can depend on him to perform with the consistency he did Thursday night.