Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Larry McCray - Blues Without You

It doesn’t take long to establish that Larry McCray is a real McCoy bluesman.  ‘Arkansas’, the opening track on his new album Blues Without You, kicks off with a Bo Diddley beat, over which Reese Wynans’ organ swells and horns add punctuation, until one of those horn notes becomes the springboard for McCray to jump off into an attention grabbing, fleet-fingered first guitar break.  And when he starts to sing, in a weighty, BB King-like voice, you know this guy has all the tools.  All the same, it’s nice to also soak up the track’s atmospheric lyric about his home state, enjoyable horn arrangement, and intriguing bass figure, before he delivers a solo that shows off the remarkable precision of his playing, even when performing some remarkable handbrake turns.
It’s clear from that first track that McCray needs no assistance on the guitar front, but it has to be
Larry McCray is the real McCoy
Pic by Arnie Goodman
said that the guesting Warren Haynes justifies his presence on ‘Down To The Bottom’.  The song starts with just McCray singing over simple acoustic guitar, then augmented by subtle strings, until drums and bass ease in.  McCray’s vocal is heartfelt, and backed up by soaring female harmonies alongside the strings.  And if all that’s good, when Haynes weighs in on slide guitar things take a real Derek & The Dominoes turn, and become pretty darned wonderful.
The other guest turns, by Joanna Connor and co-producer Joe Bonamassa, struggle to make the same impact.  The chugging barroom boogie of ‘Drinkin’ Liquor And Chasin’ Women’, with lots of trilling piano from Wynans, is certainly fun, with McCray inhabiting the vocal brilliantly and delivering a sizzling solo.  But when Connor’s slide guitar enters the fray for a duelling finish there isn’t really enough difference in tone to up the ante.  Much the same is true on the languid funk of ‘Mr Easy’, with its ear-catching smoky bass line.  A couple of minutes in, McCray invites JoBo to “play me some blues”, which he does in quivering style, but does it really offer anything that McCray couldn’t do himself?
The elegiac slow blues of ‘Blues With You (For Paul)’ though, provides a perfect setting for McCray to exhibit his talent.  Here Bonamassa and his production buddy deploy an interesting horn segment for variety, and also sweeping, romantic strings as a restrained counterpoint to McCray’s flickering then fiery guitar, while he also delivers his finest vocal of the album.  ‘Don’t Put Your Dreams To Bed’ is similarly well assembled, an uplifting affair with good piano and organ textures and more strong backing vocals, which peak with a neat “doo doo doo” refrain that brackets another sparkling McCray solo.
Some songs are overlong, notably the otherwise enjoyable ‘Breaking News’, on which smoochy sax and lush strings set up a brisk, darkly soulful vibe for a commentary on the stress of never-ending negative news cycles.  It’s a catchy tune, but needs a twist of something different to justify its six and a half minutes.  No such problems with the closing ‘I Play The Blues’ though, on which McCray sets out his credo with just his voice and acoustic guitar – and emotional conviction.
With a few tweaks, Blues Without You could have been an outstanding album.  As it is, it’s a very impressive return from Larry McCray after a recording absence of nearly seven years. Consider this.  Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram gets lots of plaudits as a new generation of blues star, and good luck to him.  But I’d say that anything Kingfish can do, Larry McCray can do - and if not better, then with more maturity and life experience.  And that makes a difference.
Blues Without You is released by KTBA Records on 25 March, and can be ordered here. 

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