Chris Cain was in fine form in June 1998, when "Live At The Rep" was recorded at the San Jose Repertory Theatre in June, 1998. The somewhat unlikely setting was chosen as a result of Cain having composed several songs (with Michael Butler) for San Jose Rep's production of Michael Glover's award winning play "Thunder Knocking on the Door: A Blusical Tale of Rhythm & the Blues."
The album opens with "Good Evening Baby" which borrows some licks from the Freddie King repertoire, and sets the tone for the show. The style throughout runs close to the border between blues and jazz, reflecting Cain's influences. These include B.B. King, and Cain employs a mellow guitar tone in the style of the great man, and sings in a voice that sounds a bit like a cross between B.B. King and Gil Scott Heron.
The first half of the album is a mixture of originals and covers. The live renditions provide plenty of opportunity for Cain to put his guitar through its paces, and allows David Kirk Mathews (keyboards) in on the act too. Things nearly get out of hand during "Help Me," when the band take it down so low that it almost grinds to a halt. The slow blues of the ensuing "My Nest Is Still Warm" gets things right back on the straight and narrow, however. It is the highlight of the album, showing Cain at his very best, with nicely sympathetic support from the band especially in the quieter moments. A lively romp through "Drinking Straight Tequila" rounds off the first half.
The second half is dominated by songs from "Thunder... ". These songs are shorter and more tightly focused than the rest. This is probably a reflection of the constraints of having to integrate them into the play without distracting from the overall flow. The second of these tunes ("Thunder Knocking At The Door") brings to mind Jimi Hendrix at his bluesiest.
The show (and album) closes out in fine style with "Helping Hand," which finds Cain in a jazzy mood as he wanders into Gil Scott Heron territory. It runs "My Nest Is Still Warm" close for best track on the album, and leaves you wanting more.
"Live At The Rep" offers a good insight into why Chris Cain is so highly regarded. It should satisfy Cain fans who have been waiting for a live recording, and more generally will appeal to those who like their blues done West Coast style, with a touch of jazz. If you have not yet had the chance to see Cain in the flesh, "Live At The Rep" will give you some idea of what you have been missing.
Chris Cain: The Blues Agency, P.O. Box 1271, Santa Cruz, CA 95061-1271
This review is copyright © 2000 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.