The album cover is the first clue – a black-and-white photo of a suit-and-tie-clad Robert Cray in profile, hands on his trusty Fender Stratocaster, the 1960s-era stereo logo in the corner with its reassurance that the recording you’re holding “can also be played on mono equipment.” What’s inside tells you the rest.
“In My Soul,” the 17th studio release from the Grammy-winning blues vocalist and guitarist, is a love letter to the classic soul and rhythm-and-blues artists who inspired Cray when he was growing up: Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, and, perhaps Cray’s most direct influence, the late R&B legend Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Cray and his band make a rare Sacramento stop Friday at the Crest Theater in support of “In My Soul,” part of a West Coast swing on his world tour.
Once a mainstay of the old Sacramento Blues Festival, “we haven’t been around for a while,” Cray said with a small laugh. He was calling from his Los Angeles rehearsal space. The room, he said, still holds a memento from his last trip to the capital city: a baseball bat from the Sacramento River Cats and Raley Field dated 2003.
“In My Soul” reunites Cray, 61, with in-demand producer and percussionist Steve Jordan, who helmed Cray’s Grammy-winning 2000 release, “Take Your Shoes Off,” and who has lent his deep-in-the-pocket drumming to everyone from Eric Clapton and BB King to John Mayer and Alicia Keys.
Jordan played a pivotal role on the new album as well. In addition to laying down percussion, drums and guitar, he offered the idea that became “In My Soul,” an email suggesting a run-through of the funky Redding B-side “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
Bland’s death in 2013 at 83 was also on Cray’s mind, as was the general feel of that era. Still, “these were just going to be ideas until the band put together more material,” Cray said. “But we got into the studio and recorded these songs and we were on the same page – we’d just lost Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. We were on the same page without even knowing it.”
Recorded over 10 days with his working band of longtime bassist and childhood friend Richard Cousins, Lee Falconer on drums and Dover Weinberg on keyboards, with horns adding to the mix, the result is an album Cray calls one of his most soulful in years.
That’s clear over its 11 tracks including the Redding cut, Lou Rawls’ done-me-wrong “Your Good Thing Is About To End” and Bland’s “Deep In My Soul,” mixed with originals penned by Cray and Cousins, spotlighting Cray’s smooth vocal and stinging single-note guitar lines.
Cray’s not a prolific songwriter; ideas mostly come to him away from the stage and studio. “Most of my writing is done during down time away from the road. When I have a deadline, I go to work,” he said with a laugh. “When I’m at home, that’s where I’m more receptive to ideas. Now, you can sing into your iPhone, or I run into my room and grab my guitar.”
But on “In My Soul,” Cray’s contributions stand up and stand out: the whiskey-and-woe of “Fine Yesterday,” the road ode “You’re Everything” and the insistently grooving “You Move Me.”
One of Cousins’ two offerings, the Booker T and the MGs-inspired “Hip Tight Onions” – a play on the band’s hit “Green Onions” – is also a Cray Band first: an instrumental that carries the torch of the legendary groove-makers.
“That was the first instrumental we’ve ever done. That was definitely a nod to Booker T.,” Cray said. “Our band is a quartet and (Booker T and the MGs) were the epitome of a groove. They played with respect and simplicity.”
After four decades on the road, albums and awards, and another world tour, Cray can afford to take the occasional glance in the rear-view mirror.
There’s plenty to take in: his early apprenticeship at the feet of blues legend Albert Collins; his leap into the mainstream with the 1986 album “Strong Persuader” and its out-of-nowhere hit “Smoking Gun”; performing with fellow guitar legends Eric Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan (Cray shared the bill for Vaughan’s final performance); his 2011 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
“It’s all been fun,” Cray said. “(The band and I) all look the same to each other as we did then. We’re a traveling family unit. We’ve been fortunate to be able to make records and have fans.
“We have fans who say, ‘My parents turned me on to you.’ Or, ‘Strong Persuader’ – we had that on when we conceived, and now he’s in college,”’ Cray continued. “Looks like we’ve been around awhile.”
He’ll have another reminder of his staying power at his next night’s date near Portland, Ore. Opening will be powerhouse blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland, daughter of Texas blues legend Johnny Copeland.
“I worked with her dad,” Cray said, that small chuckle returning again. “I held her in my arms.”