Rychard Carrington reports on The Robert Cray Band and Marcus Bonfanti – Cambridge Corn Exchange, 21 July 2008

Robert Cray
Robert Cray

An audience that filled the Corn Exchange had come to hear the blues. Why are we drawn to this music, this expression of lament and frustration? It’s rather nice to think that, far removed in our lifestyles from the originators of the blues though we are, we all feel this deep emotional affinity with its sentiments. Beneath all the connoisseurship, our souls relate.

Robert Cray immediately exudes something beyond talent. A simple smile communicates a deep love for the music he is playing. He has the relaxed, gentlemanly dignity of a man whose soul finds satisfaction in his art. Both passion and a certain contentment are communicated through his electric guitar and his tenor vocals.

And yet I also felt some mild disappointment. Partly this was due to Cray’s general preference for a smooth, soulful R&B, rather than the searing virile blues-rock that I prefer. However accomplished, however well sung, the passion felt honed rather than raw. Cray’s guitar solos provided something to get one’s teeth into a little more, but they were all rather compact: I wished he’d gone to town and really come into his own as a guitar hero. The songs tended to quite similar in feel, and mostly about aspects of love – an impressive exception being Twenty, a sensitive anti-Iraq-war song narrated from an American soldier’s perspective (Cray’s father was actually a U.S. serviceman). Also a little different was the final number, the blues standard Sitting On Top Of The World, for which the organist switched to piano, and the bass guitarist to a stand-up. But the one really exceptional moment was Jim Pugh’s lengthy organ solo, which took me right back to the excitement of vintage blues-rockers such as Colosseum. Otherwise, Cray talked little, and for all his evident devotion to his music he didn’t quite convince me it wasn’t ‘just another night on the tour’ for him.

Support act Marcus Bonfanti did have exactly that energy in performance, that keenness to communicate, that I found slightly lacking in the headline act. Solo with an acoustic guitar, he sings his own songs, but they have a very definite blues style to them. Young and English (born in London, resident in Liverpool), long-haired and bearded, he’s someone who could just hit lucky and become big, like Newton Faulkner. He has a kind of star presence, in fresh, raw form. He was appropriately well received, and sold and signed scores of his CD during the interval. Good luck, Marcus!

Writer: Rychard Carrington