There’s an old saying: You have to have the blues to sing the blues. Robert Cray sells the blues; his records scramble up the pop charts, and he’s won two Grammy awards. But the blues haven’t taken root in his heart. He sings them fluently, and with sharp stylistic accuracy; what he can’t do is bring back the days when the blues were a living ache in a black man’s soul. And so his music can sound empty, and more than a little pointless. There’s nothing at its core forcing you to pay attention.
On his latest album, Midnight Stroll, he assembles a mostly new band (only his longtime bass player, Richard Cousins, is still with him) and tries something different. Now he comes on like Otis Redding, the most poignant and powerful male singer of the great soul years of the ’60s. His horn players — Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, the much-recorded Memphis Horns — in fact played on some of Redding’s best-selling records, and deliver much the same searing punch as they did then. The harmony and pace of a song called ”My Problem” almost uncannily recalls ”I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Redding’s first major hit.
But Cray doesn’t have enough fire in his gut. Redding’s voice caressed and burned; Cray’s just dutifully sings. Redding screamed because he was excited or hurt; Cray screams because that’s what you do in this music. Not everything he does is bad: His guitar solos poke and probe, like canny fingers sculpting clay. And his songs can be strong, especially ”Walk Around Time,” which struts with a light, eager step, and ”The Forecast (Calls for Pain),” a restless tune whose lyrics, especially in the refrain that’s quoted in the title, cut fairly deep — deeper, in fact, than Cray’s singing in all the songs on the album combined. Robert Cray is a solid, stylish professional. But he just doesn’t have the blues. C