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The mature Robert Cray

Twenty
Twenty
By Robert Cray

Sanctuary Records: 2005

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This review first appeared in Turbula in June 2005.

So you're looking at the new album from Robert Cray, and it strikes you – hard – that he is no longer the young up-and-coming buck who was going to change the face of blues. His face is lined; his hair touched with silver. He looks ... distinguished, like a professor or a middle-aged Harry Belafonte.

The music is changed, too. The voice remains as smooth as ever, and he can still write beautiful songs that stick in your head. But that bravado that once marked his music is gone; the swagger toned way down.

It's a mature Robert Cray you're listening to now, and it takes a bit of getting used to, the way the orignal bobby soxers must have been a bit stunned when Sinatra reinvented himself in the mid-'50s as a saloon singer after all those years as a sweet-singing teen idol.

It's not the changes in Cray himself that are really what stun you, of course. It's the realization that it's been more than 20 years since Cray first blew onto the national stage; more than two decades since he appeared with John Lee Hooker and Smokey Wilson on the PBS documentary "Three Generations of the Blues." That it was 20 years ago this year that he teamed with Albert Collins and Johnny Clyde Copeland on the Grammy-winning "Showdown!" guitar summit, an album so perfect, so immediately legendary that it was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame within a few years of its release.

And so if Robert Cray can no longer serve as the youthful symbol of a new generation in the blues, nor its fans, it's not only because Cray has aged.

For those of us who have aged with Cray, those whose lives have been lived with Cray's music providing much of the soundtrack, his new album, "Twenty," is aptly titled. Those who give it a listen will find its music is even more apt.

More R&B and soul-tinged than earlier efforts, Cray remains, as mentioned, a top-flight songwriter. His guitar playing, too, is as glorious as when he was a young fret-burner, if more jazz-tinged these days. Rather than Buddy Guy, he's sounding more like Fenton Robinson or Barney Kessel.

But it all comes down to the songs, and Cray's latest batch are as good as any he's written.

Rather than the narcissistic regrets of "Strong Persuader" or "Sonny," we get the come-uppance of "Poor Johnny." While some of the songs are still of the "my baby up and left me" blues school, there are also several with more thoughtful, mature themes: "That Ain't Love" and "My Last Regret" look at love from middle-aged eyes, while "Twenty" outlines Cray's opposition to the Iraq war.

Maybe Cray never found the Jimi Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughan level of superstardom so often predicted for him, but his latest album shows something perhaps even better: An artist fully engaged in life, bringing a growing wisdom to his music, a wisdom that comes from paying attention to the passing years.