BAR HARBOR — The term “virtuoso” applies to those who have reached the highest level of their art. While Robert Cray might not agree, he certainly made a case for deserving that mantle last week at The Criterion Theatre here.
Cray took the spotlight in a 90-minute set Oct. 3, demonstrating his mastery of the guitar with finger-work that ranged from the incendiary to the sublime.
Backed by his working band – bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Dover Weinberg and drummer Terrance Clark – the five-time Grammy Award winner performed tunes from his latest album, “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm,” as well as reaching back into his extensive catalog for songs like “Smoking Gun” and “Chicken in the Kitchen.”
Cray and band came onto the stage to the announcement, “The one, the only, the incredible Robert Cray.” It’s doubtful that anyone in the near-capacity crowd would dispute that claim.
From his first song, “I’ll Always Remember You” from the 2012 release “Nothin’ But Love,” to the final encore, the Blues Hall of Fame inductee proved why he deserves the lifetime achievement award he received last month at the Americana Music Honors and Awards in Nashville.
Cray, of course, is one fine singer, and his vocal work seems to get better with age. His forays into the upper range on the don’t-give-a-damn anthem “I Don’t Care” and the soulful pleading of “You Had My Heart” were especially well-received at the Criterion.
Still, it’s Cray’s guitar prowess that first comes to mind. And he had ample opportunity to show off those skills. While Cousins, Weinberg and Clark provided yeoman support for Cray, the solos, with the exception of an organ solo by Weinberg, all featured the leader.
There are guitar players who are able to shred notes at an incredibly fast pace, and Cray is one. Where he differs from most of these guitar slingers is that he is actually saying something in his solos – telling a story – not just racing through patterns or scales. His blistering fretwork on a slow blues tune early in the set included string bending worthy of his mentor Albert Collins and drew considerable applause. He somehow is able to go from the searing to the sensitive with equal aplomb, as he demonstrated in ending “You Had My Heart.”
Cray brought the song to a close with an extended diminuendo, coaxing a series of sensual guitar licks from the instrument as the volume gradually decreased to the inaudible. Cray’s command of the instrument was astonishing, the moment marred only by one apparently beer-soaked buffoon who decided that it was now his time to declare to everyone in the theater that he was hip to the blues. He clearly was not. Cray, the consummate professional, continued the slow fade unperturbed.
Throughout the night, there were calls for songs from Cray’s 1986 release “Strong Persuader,” the album that introduced the musician’s work to a mainstream audience. They were rewarded near the end of the set with “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” and, later, with “Smoking Gun” as the first encore. The tunes seemed as fresh as they were 30 years ago and clearly were crowd favorites.
The opening act for the concert was singer and guitarist Brooks Young, a Massachusetts musician steeped in the blues. Accompanied by a bass player, the gravel-voiced guitarist tore off some tasty licks of his own.