By and large, the Tampa Bay Blues Festival is not a place where you witness much weirdness. Smiling baby-boomers boppinâ to music under the sun and stars is pretty much the order of the day(s). But two instances last night — one good, one kinda creepy — showed a touch of the weird.
The good: James Hunter talking animatedly to the audience in a thick cockney accent (âToim ta introduce me bandâ) and singing like a cross between Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Ray Charles. Hunter, sweating in the sun in a long-sleeved brown shirt, pin-striped pants and boots, is from a town 50 miles west of London; he grew up on American R&B of the late â50s and early â60s, to the virtual exclusion of everything else.
Hunter has channeled those sounds into his act, which includes rhumbas, funk from the Brother Ray and JB schools, ballads and pop numbers. He proved a soulful, agile vocalist, be it crooning on the Ray Noble chestnut âThe Very Thought of Youâ yelping to the 5 Royales stomper âBaby, Donât Do it,â or interpreting his originals that sounded as if he plucked them from a time machine.
Hunter was backed by an ace organist, supple drummer, acoustic bassist and a two-man horn section (baritone and tenor sax) that lent a welcome dimension. The horn players took a lot of soulful solos, and Hunter kicked in with urgently knotty guitar forays that at times seemed at odds with the generally relaxed flow of the rhythm section.
Hunter did a few showy moves, but they were self-conscious, more like set pieces than organic responses to the music. Still, they were funny, and Hunterâs non-stop smile signaled that he wanted everyone in on the joke.
Now to the kinda creepy: I never understood why Robert Cray has such limited stage appeal. He possesses an immediately winning tenor voice, a passel of modern blues and R&B songs, and he plays guitar in a thoughtful fashion that doesnât rely on histrionics. Heâs not a natural showman, but heâs no statue, either. Yet every time Iâve seen Cray (maybe four or five times), I feel as if Iâve taken in all he has to offer in three or four songs.
About five tunes into his set last night, it hit me: Crayâs major deficiency as a stage artist is that he has no sense of humor. Contrary to the clichÃ©s, the blues isnât all about sadness and heartbreak; much of the musicâs appeal over the decades has been based on levity, laughing in the face of hard times. Â
So Cray was performing a slow blues about being cuckolded by a guy hanging around his house while he was gone. A very, very typical blues theme. Only this interloper was a â12-year-old boy.â And, let me tell ya, the tune had a pronounced ickiness.
Then it occurred to me: Buddy Guy, a bluesman with a heightened sense of humor, could have turned the song into a hoot. John Lee Hooker couldâve as well. So could myriad other artists. Robert Crayâs version just made me shudder.
To underscore his missing humor gene, Cray addressed the crowd, scolded us, really: âPlease put the cameras down. Videos too.â
What, no âHello, St. Pete?â When did bootleg Robert Cray videos and still photos become hot items in the underground market? Itâs a festival, man; you gotta let shit like that go.
Anyway, as Cray was singing about a preteen boy scoring with his woman, we headed for the gates. Weâd seen enough — in more ways than one.
By the way,Â the blues fest continues today and Sunday. Lots of good stuff on stage.Â Go to tampabaybluesfest.com to check out the schedule.Â
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