Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

Some claim Robert Cray's new one is not-blues that sells out to Strong Persuader's fluke gold, but even if you agree (and you're wrong), you'd better believe that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Mercury) permanently establishes Cray's standing as an artist with a subject: an unerring instinct for the messed-up symbiosis between traditional blues-based musics and traditional male-based sex roles. The slick seducer of the title cut is soon peeping, walking the floor, chasing his sister-in-law, flirting with murder, losing his family, and sleeping on the streets, and though Cray's forthright vocals, confident beat, and sinewy guitar sure don't make his progress sound like fun, they do make it sound somehow natural, which in blues it is. One way Cray points up the primitive recidivism of such self-destructive behavior is by modernizing blues form: the faster tempos, soul changes, and keyboard hooks could almost be his way of reminding himself to shape the fuck up. And what do you know? The love of a good woman redeems him in the end. Or so he claims.

Those who prefer their blues more basic have other options. They could scarf up half a dozen MCA Chess reissues--Howlin' Wolf's Moaning in the Moonlight, say, or Sonny Boy Williamson's Down and Out Blues. Or take a flier on a couple of singers too gritty to suffer from crossover potential. Joe Louis Walker's The Gift (Hightone) comes from the same fiends who produce Cray, Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, and even shares a song with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Maurice John Vaughn doesn't strive for the well-turned lyric the way Cray and Walker do, but he can talk that talk, and if the title Generic Blues Album (Alligator) sounds like fun to you, you won't be disappointed by his rough, relaxed, jokey bar music. Just don't forget that the blues continue after the band leaves the stage.

Playboy, Nov. 1988


Oct. 1988 Dec. 1988