Friday, August 12, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: WAR BLUES

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 12, 2005

The funny thing is, for years I suspected that contemporary bluesman Robert Cray might have Republican leanings. Not only was he raised in a military family, some of his lyrics betray some GOP sensibilities. Back in the ‘80s on “Nothin’ But a Woman” on his breakthrough album Strong Persuader, he cheerfully fantasized, “Tell me a boat full of lawyers just sank …” And on over a Howlin’ Wolf guitar riff on “!040 Blues” on 1993’s Shame + A Sin) he convincingly snarled, “I hate taxes.”

But on his new album Twenty, Cray has released one of the most moving anti-war songs of the Bush era.

The title song is the story of a young man who joins the military after Sept. 11. But fighting the insurgents in Iraq sours his initial idealism.

With a sob in his voice over a slow, slinky guitar that builds up to mad strumming, Cray sings:

“Standing out here in the desert/Trying to protect an oil line/I’d really like to do my job but/This ain’t the country that I had in mind/They call this a war on terror/I see a lot of civilians dying/Mothers, sons, fathers and daughters/Not to mention some friends of mine …”

Fighting what he calls a “rich man’s war,” the narrator is demoralized. “We were supposed to leave last week/Promises they don’t keep any more …” By the end of the song, there’s a stranger knocking at his mother’s door and the disembodied voice of the narrator pleads “Mother don’t you cry …”

Actually this is a continuation of anti-war sentiments Cray first started expressing on his previous album, 2003’s Time Will Tell. There he had a couple of protest songs including the opening track “Survivor,” (“you take a little schoolboy and teach him who to hate/ then you send him to the desert for the oil near Kuwait") and the hoppy, New Wavey “Distant Shore” (“war begat war/all on a distant shore …”)

With these songs Cray has bucked the apolitical stereotype of blues artists, earning his place alongside of ascended masters like J.B. Lenoir -- the Chicago bluesman who wrote “Korea Blues” and “Vietnam Blues” -- not to mention Junior Wells, who in the ‘60s wrote and sang an angry song called “Viet Cong Blues.”

B.B. King in 1971 recorded “The Power of the Blues” (“Now me and Lucille/We're gonna stop this war/I'm no politician/But I know the score.”)

And meanwhile, back at church, don’t forget Sister Rosetta Tharpe shouting “Ain’t gonna study war no more …” in “Down By the Riverside.”

Cray’s only contemporary challenger in the anti-war arena is Terry Evans, whose latest album Fire in the Feeling includes a sad Ry Cooder-penned song called “My Baby Joined the Army,” which is about a guy watching his daughter board a plane to Iraq.

But Cray’s no Steve Earle. Even though a striking photo of a soldier covering his head adorns the album cover, the new album deals mostly with the politics of the heart and the war of the sexes. Infidelity figures into more songs than government lies.

“Poor Johnny” is a slow burner with a beat suggesting reggae that deals with the consequences of cheating; “That Ain‘t Love“ is a minor-key rocker that recalls some of Cray’s tougher Strong Persuader material with drummer Kevin Hayes sounding like Mitch Mitchell.

“It Doesn’t Show” is a sweet, sad ballad of a broken romance (starting with a classic image “You threw out my clothes …“) with the most beautiful melody on the album. Cray has said “I’m Walkin’” (not the Fats Domino song) is influenced by the late Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Indeed, you can hear echoes of Watson’s mid ‘70s FM radio staple “Ain’t That a Bitch” here. And like much of Cray’s best recent work, it’s got some nice interplay -- sometimes almost a call-and-response -- between Cray’s guitar and Jim Pugh’s keyboards.

“Two Steps From the End,” with Jim Pugh playing a Jimmy Smith-style organ and Cray’s guitar sounding jazzy sounds a bit like Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time”; and Cray -- whose basic sound owes more to Memphis soul than Chicago blues -- nails William Bell’s under-appreciated Stax classic “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.”

“My Last Regret” at first sounds like psychotic love about to turn violent. (“I want to see you burn all the way down/I want to see your ashes all over the ground …” ) Actually, however it’s a song Pugh wrote about quitting smoking. Cray sings it in an understated falsetto, with Pugh, keeping those fingers busy, comes in with a snazzy little piano solo at the end of the track.

“Fadin’ Away” has an early ‘70s English blues-rock feel about it. The melody reminds me a little of Rod Stewart’s “Handbags and Gladrags.” At first the lyrics seem to suggest a keep-a-tiff-upper-lip advice kind of song: “remember the good times always follow the bad … ”

But by the last verse, after a transcendental guitar solo Cray’s snuck up on you with a verse of subtly political lyrics.

“When you’re feelin’ sad that you’ve been misled/ Hang on, they’ll soon fade away/Ain’t it a shame no one takes the blame/ Hang on …”

With Twenty, Cray has succeeeded in making the personal political.

Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo

The Robert Cray Band is playing 7 p.m. tonight at the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque as part of the summer Zoo Music series. Tickets are $22.

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