After four decades of playing the blues, Robert Cray decided it was time for a celebration. So instead of adding to a remarkably prolific library of studio recordings, the Grammy-winning guitarist and vocalist decided to put the current version of the band that bears his name onstage with a few friends at four different Los Angeles venues and record the whole run.
But given the milestone that inspired the shows, Cray also wanted to offer a glimpse of where his band had been. So the resulting concert album, 4 Nights of 40 Years Live, additionally sported a second disc of performances from 1982 (before the band won over the fanbase that made Cray the most commercially visible "new" bluesman of his generation) and 1987 (after the Strong Persuader album established Cray as a star). Completing that package would be a DVD offering video footage from concerts featured on the two CDs along with commentary by a few of Cray's pals: Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Jimmie Vaughan.
Combined, the three discs make 4 Nights of 40 Years Live as monumental an album release as its title suggests.
"Well, we were celebrating 40 years last year," Cray says. "I was talking with my manager and Steve Jordan, who produced the record (as well as Cray's 2014 studio release In My Soul and two earlier recordings). We came up with the concept, which was to try and let people know a little bit about us and give them a little bit of personality — the kind of thing you don't really hear on most records and CDs. We just wanted to show them a little bit of what it has been like for the band over the last 40 years."
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The first disc boasts a repertoire that runs from the title tune to Cray's 1983 album Bad Influence to the David Porter/Issac Hayes classic Your Good Thing is About to End first cut by the guitarist on the vintage R&B-leaning In My Soul. There are also guests, including Jordan (on drums and percussion), Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds (the famed Texas band whose mid '80s commercial breakthrough largely coincided with Cray's), harmonica ace Lee Oskar and a three man horn team.
But the big thrill is hearing the current Cray Band lineup: keyboardist Dover Weinberg (whose initial tenure with the band dates back to the 1970s), bassist Richard Cousins (another longstanding member who left the ranks but returned) and a comparatively new recruit, drummer Les Falconer.
"This lineup is great," Cray says. "Richard has been back in the fold since 2008. Dover, of course, was around in the early days. The three of us go way back and share a lot of the same tastes in music, whether it be gospel, blues, jazz, country, everything like that. When we get together and start playing, we automatically know where everybody is going to go. Les has a background of playing with a lot of other people in the past we enjoy. That's what makes this unit really strong. It's always important to have some kind of commonality between the players."
Such chemistry is also evident of the second disc of earlier recordings, especially the tunes pulled from an appearance on the Dutch television program Countdown in 1987, the same year Strong Persuader picked up a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording. The win cemented a period when enormous commercial and critical attention came Cray's way. Much of it, curiously, viewed the guitarist as a new artist.
"Well, the attention that came out of all that was fantastic," Cray says. "But like you mentioned, we weren't new when Strong Persuader came out. That record was released in '86 and we had been a band since '74. It was just funny hearing yourself on the radio.
"By that time, we were basically playing in clubs and doing 200-plus shows a year anyway. We didn't think we would be able to do any more work with the record's popularity than what we were already doing. The gigs got bigger, the traveling became heavier. But you know what? We were able to handle it."