By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

August 28, 2003

Pop quiz: Who was the bass player featured in the band Otis Day and the Knights in the 1978 hit movie "Animal House"? If you said bluesman and five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray, well done; sorry, no prizes today. But you probably already know that the Georgia native will co-headline at the Pageant on Wednesday with John Hiatt. It's a show that has some fans of both artists grumbling on the Internet, if only because each set will be a bit shorter than usual.

The Robert Cray Band began making its mark in Eugene, Ore., in 1974. Cray's breakthrough came in 1986 with "Strong Persuader" and its follow-up, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (1988), which featured story-songs of jealousy and lust, including "Smoking Gun," "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" and "Night Patrol."

Cray has been accused by some purists of not being a blues artist at all because, when many blues guitarists of the past quarter of a century concentrated on speed and power, Cray played deliberately and with clarity -- more B.B. King than Stevie Ray Vaughan.

When others shouted and moaned, Cray was smooth. Many of his CDs of the '80s and '90s, especially those with the Memphis Horns, leaned toward classic soul.

Cray and his band -- Jim Pugh on keyboard, Kevin Hayes on drums and Karl Sevareid on bass -- have a new label (Sanctuary) and a new album, "Time Will Tell." And they've taken the opportunity to shake things up, starting with first-time production by Cray and Pugh.

"We made this album before being signed to any company, so we felt free to do whatever we wanted," Cray says on the Sanctuary Records Web site. "And that's just what we did."

Gone is the horn section that served him so well but was giving more recent albums a certain sameness. The new CD adds strings, courtesy of the Turtle Island String Quartet; electric sitar; percussion by Luis Conte; and trumpet and sax by Sly & the Family Stone's Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini, respectively.

The biggest change is in subject matter, with two anti-war songs ("Survivor" and "Distant Shore") mixed in with Cray's trademark love songs and funky numbers such as "Back Door Slam."

Judging by recent set lists, fans can expect about a dozen tunes at the Pageant show, with about a third drawn from the new CD. A recent show in New York featured "Back Door Slam," "Survivor," "Time Makes Two" and "Up in the Sky" -- the sitar number -- among classics such as "I Guess I Showed Her," "Smoking Gun" and "Phone Booth."