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Robert Cray w/Renee' Austin
@ MN Zoo Amphitheater, June 19, 1998
by Ann Wickstrom
To see a four-time Grammy winner in a venue as sweet as the MN Zoo Amphitheater on a night as still and clear as this night, well ... it adds up to a very pleasant evening. For those who have never been to a show at the zoo, there isn't a bad seat in the place. Wooden benches curve around the stage in a half-circle and extend steeply upward. Think of it as an outdoor Guthrie. Huge artificial rocks form the backdrop to the stage on the left side and the right is backed by a lake dotted with ducks and other assorted waterfowl. The sound is excellent.

Kurt & Renee'
Biscuits & Blues, Jan. 1998
Photo © 1998 by Ray Stiles. All rights reserved
Local singer Renee' Austin opened the show with Kurt Nistler, guitarist in her regular backing band. For this gig they sat on stools and Kurt played an acoustic guitar. Their hour set included a little bit funk, a little bit Willie Dixon, a little bit Freddie King (I'm Tore Down), and a handful of other tunes to get the crowd primed.

Robert Cray is not one to play a bunch of blues standards; most of his songs are his own and it was very clear who his true fans were because they quickly recognized every song. In his black sandals, black pants, and black, pink and yellow shirt, he led his four-piece band through some newer songs from his latest release, Sweet Potato Pie, such as "I Can't Quit" and "The One in the Middle", a great song which was voted Best Blues Song of 1997 in Living Blues' Reader's Awards. He also played "I Shiver" from Shame & a Sin and "I'll Go On" (my personal favorite of the night) from 95's Some Rainy Morning, The Hammond B-3 solo on this one brought some members of the crowd to their feet, and the guitar solo was punctuated with some really strange but appealing chords, with Cray singing in his great, distinctive falsetto. Other songs were "One Last Time" from I Was Warned, and "Bouncin' Back" from 1990's Midnight Stroll. Not to leave out his oldest fans, he did "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" from Strong Persuader. It was during this one that his microphone, his amp and the bass player's amp went out. So while Robert continued to sing and play, hoping it would come back shortly, the keyboard player and the drummer carried on alone.

Robert Cray
Minneapolis, Sept. 1997
Photo © 1998 by Tom Asp. All rights reserved
When it was obvious that this problem was not going to be resolved any time soon, Cray became the conductor and the audience became the singers. He was lucky it happened during this tune because almost everyone knew the words and I must say we did a fantastic job of taking over! The keyboard player gracefully brought the song to a close and fans took the next ten minutes to pursue beverage opportunities while the power situation was being fixed.

Cray employs so much vibrato when he plays that he had to switch guitars after every single song while his tech re-tuned them. He went back and forth between a sunburst Strat and a metallic silver one. He used a chrome Telecaster and the bass player plucked a stand-up when the band got down on some very deep blues. Cray's guitar-playing has a rock-solid, characteristic sound. His voice is true and steady. His songs are creative and catchy, with a good story weaved into most of them. As for his fans, they are as loyal and enthusiastic as the day is long; one look at the tailgaters in the parking lot with their Robert Cray music blaring before AND after the show left no doubt.

This review is copyright © 1998 by Ann Wickstrom, all rights reserved.

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Copyright © 1998 by Ray M. Stiles
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.