Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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At a closed-circuit showcase prepublicizing Robert Cray's I Was Warned (Mercury), the singer-guitarist's latest backup unit was introduced as "America's premier rhythm and blues band." Marketingwise, blues has gotten too small for him. But with Cray playing the guitar hero live and Stax-Volt's Memphis Horns semipermanent fixtures, "rhythm and blues" is just dumb code for the color of Cray's skin. He's arrived at a rock-soul synthesis as deeply rooted in blues themes and sounds as ever.

Where 1990's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark leaned too far toward soul, overplaying Cray's studiously unspectacular voice, I Was Warned recalculates his demographics by accentuating guitar hooks, and with longtime producer Dennis Walker cowriting eight songs, he gets his most memorable material since 1986's Strong Persuader. In a just world, AOR radio's WM 18-35s would suck this stuff up as if B.B. King and Bad Company had had a baby. In this one, enough of them will buy it to keep him in precious metal.

The themes have shifted demographically as well. After a career of splitting the blame in the man-woman wars, Cray's painful excavations into both sides' horrible secrets have begun to favor male-victim formulas. Only the finale, in which he watches a one-night stand get dressed craving her return, makes you wince. But since his line is that he's reformed, not that he hasn't sinned, his realism and specificity remain--there really are femme fatales in this world, and the title tune nails their obsessive allure. Cray has worked to make sure you'll like this outing, and he ain't jiving.

Fast Cuts: Antone's Women (Antone's): the Austin blues label specializes in the gals' stories, and this multi-artist sampler will make a believer out of you. Joe Houston, Cornbread and Cabbage Greens (Specialty): unearthed from the '50s for seekers after the true r&b: the wild, honking tenor sax of dreams.

Playboy, Aug. 1992

July 1992 Sept. 1992