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Robert Cray

Robert Cray speaks out on latest CD

Since he arrived on the national scene with the 1980 CD, "Who's Been Talkin','' Robert Cray practically has been synonymous with writing perceptive and mature songs about relationships — with the temptations to stray from a lover and the damage that this causes being notable themes.

So it's surprising to hear Cray open his latest CD, "Time Will Tell," with "Survivor," a song that offers a strong anti-war message that has grown even more timely against the backdrop of the war with Iraq. That theme reappears later on the CD with "Distant Shore," another anti-war tune written by Jim Pugh, Cray's longtime keyboardist.

At a time when the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Steve Earle and John Mellencamp have faced backlashes ranging from severe — for the Dixie Chicks — to mild — so far for Mellencamp's "To Washington" — raising questions about American foreign policy can be a risky venture for musicians.

But Cray is willing to pay the price if either song puts him on the hot seat.

"Whatever happens, happens," he said. "That's the way this band has always been. We play what we do. And this (the topical side of the group) happens to be something nobody's seen before, but it's who we are."

In talking to the 50-year-old guitarist, it quickly became clear how passionately he feels about the risks involved with the Iraq war.

"I just had to put what I did in the song," he said of "Survivor." "It was just inside. I've just been so pissed. My wife and I, we'd talk about it all the time. It would be a topic of conversation on the news. I'd listen to news radio. And I read the paper all the time. It's undeniable."

"Survivor" starts out as a message of personal perseverance, but by the third verse, Cray shifts the lyrics toward a global outlook, focusing on the risks of the war in the Middle East with the line "You're trying to change a world you don't understand."

Although this interview was conducted well before the scandal over prisoner abuse in Iraq became public, Cray clearly anticipated the difficulties that have surfaced recently in Iraq.

"My feeling is like we have to be careful," Cray said. "We're opening up a can of worms. And so that's where I was coming with that. It's this whole thing where it's like we've alienated half of the world by going in and doing this war. I don't think it's going to happen just like the map (for peace), like they want it to ... I think that everybody needs to sit down and reconsider and find out the root reasons for all of this instead of going in for other reasons."

The topical side of the Robert Cray Band — which besides Cray and Pugh includes drummer Kevin Hayes and bassist Karl Sevareid — isn't the only fresh dimension to "Time Will Tell'' as the CD also explores some new musical territory for the Grammy-winning guitarist and his group.

While Cray's familiar blend of blues and soul is still a prominent part of "Time Will Tell" on songs such as the gritty and vaguely spooky "Back Door Slam," the spunky horn-spiced "Your Pal" and the smooth ballad "I Didn't Know," the CD also features some of Cray's most experimental material. "Survivor," mixes a Caribbean beat with a bluesy vibe and a rolling piano line from Pugh. "Distant Shore" also has a world beat dimension with its Latin rhythm and percolating organ.

Another bold tune is Pugh's "Up In the Sky," a gorgeous string-laden ballad that merges pop with Middle Eastern tones provided by Cray playing sitar.

On the whole, Cray said he thinks the new CD is the most diverse of the 12 CDs he's released over the course of his career.

"I think we've stepped out in the past, but no, not like on 'Time Will Tell,'" Cray said. "When you look at something like 'Up In the Sky,' which is a song written by our keyboard player, Jim Pugh, it's a great song. And what we did on this record was just to have fun."

Cray said the musical experiments on "Time Will Tell" didn't happen because he believed the group needed to shake up its sound. But he said the fact that his previous two CDs, "Take Your Shoes Off" — a 1999 Grammy-winning release — and "Shoulda Been Home" (2001), had been largely overlooked, helped foster an anything-goes attitude with the "Time Will Tell" project.

"I think that there was probably a little disappointment from the fact that the last two records, one of which was Grammy material, and you know, nothing really happened with them," Cray said. "... I think the frustration because of the fact that not many people heard the last two records, we just decided we'd just go in, do what we do and just have at it.''

The Robert Cray Band plays today — July 8 — at Mississippi Nights, 914 N. First St. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show cost $26.50.

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