Wonderful artist. Wonderful venue. What’s not to like?
Shawn Jones does what everybody does when they step onto the Town Hall stage for the first time. “What a building,” he smiles. “They should have one of these in my town”. You could forgive the Californian for not liking Birmingham too much, he did have his phone stolen today after all. He’s not phased, though. Working with Waylon Jennings and touring with Metallica – as Jones has – probably prepares a person for most things. He’s here playing songs from his last two cd’s, and standing there with armed with just his guitar, Jones is very much a troubadour in the classic mould. Songs like “Savin’ The Best For Last” fit that perfectly. “Heaven’s Daughter” adds a fragile Chris Whiteley type quality and the closing “Running Water” is an optimistic highlight of a confident, classy set.
Robert Cray on the other hand isn’t surprised by the environs, he’s been here before: “oh y’all came back,” he deadpans. “We hoped that you would, it’s been over a year since we were here and we’ve just been waiting backstage for all that time, for the knock on the door…….”
Cray and his three superb bandmates – led by the superb keyboard and organ player Dover Weinberg and the charismatic bass man Richard Cousins – have the relaxed air of a quartet that can knock this out of the park without breaking stride whenever you ask them too, and well they might, because for something near four decades Robert Cray has been doing just that.
This wonderful set, in fact, is to celebrate that very thing: Cray’s forty years as a performer but, as they casually walk on and start up “Phone Booth” he appears to relaxed about the whole thing. In fact it’s difficult to imagine when he wouldn’t be the coolest dude in the room.
Many have tried to do the soulful blues thing, they fail on one count – they don’t have Robert Cray’s rich, Otis Redding-like tones and his voice is close to perfect here on work like “The Forecast (Calls For Pain)”, and “Blues Get Off My Shoulder”.
A blues artist nominally, Cray is so much more. And he sets about proving it here. There is a funkiness about “Chicken In The Kitchen” there’s a sorrow and a bleakness too, present most evidently in the stunning “Sadder Days” but there’s also a sense that everything will be ok, which permeates through “Time Makes Two.”
Although all four men – completed by Les Falconer who does a stellar job on drums – are very obviously gifted musicians, they never overplay. Sure, Cray and Weinberg trade leads at points, but it is always the song in mind. Cray could be flashy and use every song to showcase the fact he can play guitar better than pretty much anyone. Some would. He never does. Indeed the one occasion he allows himself anything approaching histrionics – an intricate solo in “Right Next Door” (Because Of Me)” – he does it with such a joyous grin that it’s impossible not to be swept along.
In the encore there’s a funky instrumental, “Hip Tight Onions”, and there’s no disguising these men have a special musical bond, moreover, as the show finishes with “You Move Me” there’s no denying this was a very special evening.
Normally there’s good reason to baulk at things being shouted from the audience. Here though, midway through, a chap politely calls out and says: “Excuse me, Robert, how can we persuade you to come back more often?” Cray momentarily looks humbled, he didn’t need to be. He deserves to enjoy his celebration.