Robert Cray, That's What I Heard, album review, Rock and Blues Muse

By Mike O’Cull

Blues legend Robert Cray unleashes his considerable talents yet again on his new record That’s What I Heard. The set drops February 28th, 2020 thanks to Nozzle Records/Thirty Tigers. Produced by Steve Jordan, That’s What I Heard is a show of gratitude to Cray’s soul, gospel, blues, and R&B inspirations including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Curtis Mayfield, The Sensational Nightingales, and others but also contains four fresh new originals from Robert’s own hand. From start to finish, the record is funky, cool, and full of life and it does an excellent job reminding us of some outstanding moments in American music.

Robert Cray needs no introduction to anyone who has followed blues-based music over the past 40 years. He’s recorded 20 studio albums, won five Grammy Awards, and been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. His 80s hit “Smoking Gun” helped spearhead a resurgence of interest in the blues in those days, landed Cray an MTV Video Music Award nomination, and has become a standard in its own right. His slinky, understated guitar style and emotive vocals make him stand apart from the over-the-top blues/rock heroics so many others indulge in and give everything he does an unshakable identity.

That’s What I Heard kicks off with a Cray original, “Anything You Want,” that grooves hard in his trademark way and spotlights Cray’s vocal ability before his guitar starts talking. The track walks the line between hard blues and R&B extremely well and works perfectly as the opening cut. It’s everything you’ve ever loved about Cray’s sound and shows that his musical power remains undiminished. The traditional gospel gem “Burying Ground” follows and takes listeners in a completely different direction. Most notably done by The Sensational Nightingales, it’s a throwback to the Sundays of Cray’s younger days when his parents’ gospel records dominated the family stereo. Cray aces the song’s sanctified feel and takes us all to church in the process.

Bobby “Blue” Bland’s sweet and romantic “You’re The One” comes next and Cray uses it to deliver one of his best vocal takes on the entire album. The whole band exudes an old-school charm and grace and Cray allows himself the freedom to soar over their outstanding foundation. Bland is clearly one of Robert’s heroes and it shows in the best-possible way. Don Gardner’s “My Baby Likes to Boogaloo” is an obscure hip-shaker that shows the down-and-dirty side of these sessions and lets Cray lead his band and us fans deep into a gritty bag of soul. It’s an amazing track and one of Cray’s many high-water marks.

The delicate and heartfelt ballad “To Be With You” is a Cray-penned tribute to the memory of his departed friend, songwriting giant Tony Joe White. It’s a sparse, breathtaking song of loss that comes across as genuine and sincere. It also shows the incredible emotional range of Cray and this band and all involved run it down masterfully. Curtis Mayfield’s “You’ll Want Me Back” also works in the same profoundly human territory and it’s impossible not to be moved by the way Cray sings it. “Promises You Can’t Keep,” written by Steve Jordan, Kim Wilson and Danny Kortchmar, is another heartbreaking slow jam that features Steve Perry on backing vocals.

Taken as a whole, That’s What I Heard is another smashing chapter in Robert Cray’s long career and is a not-to-be-missed record that will delight blues fans everywhere. Cray is one of the greats of our modern times and anything he does is always worth some listening time. This is a killer set that will only extend Robert’s name and fame.

Listen to “This Man”

Robert Cray Online