LIVE: Robert Cray Band @ The Egg, 3/13/19; The Yardbirds @ The Egg, 3/16/19
Review by Steven Stock
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
I was fortunate enough to see two shows at The Egg in the same week: a fine performance by blues guitarist Robert Cray that somehow never quite ignited on Wednesday, and three nights later an incendiary performance by The Yardbirds, a quintet that’s one 75-year-old drummer away from being a cover band. The experience set me to thinking about what distinguishes a great gig from a merely good one.
To be sure, The Yardbirds had a couple of advantages. They were playing the sold-out 450-seat Swyer Theatre, and the energy level in the hall was markedly higher than in the three-quarters full 982-seat Hart Theatre that Cray was confronting. Also The Yardbirds had a Saturday night crowd: although we may have skewed pretty ancient, we were out for a good time and very vocal in our appreciation.
It was the musicianship that got us going: Godfrey Townsend’s eloquent guitar solos, Myke Scavone’s harmonica runs, Kenny Aaronson’s dynamic bass and John Idan’s spot-on singing. But what made the show almost transcendent was the way in which the band clearly fed off the crowd’s response, a virtuous feedback loop. Idan took pains to engage the audience, introducing most songs with little vignettes and coaching us to sing “hey!” on “Over Under Sideways Down.”
The set list was artfully constructed as well, the obligatory hits (“Heart Full of Soul,” “You’re a Better Man than I,” “Evil Hearted You,” “Smokestack Lightning” and “For Your Love”) interspersed with curios such as Mose Allison’s “I’m Not Talkin,” founding drummer Jim McCarty taking over vocal duties on the Box of Frogs tune “Back Where I Started” and a suitably psychedelic rendition of “Dazed and Confused,” a song Jimmy Page debuted with The Yardbirds before forming Led Zeppelin.
Page, of course, was The Yardbirds fourth guitarist, following Top Topham, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Although it was only Townsend’s third night with the band, he and Idan had no difficulty covering the guitar parts, as exemplified by the encores, a glorious fiery version of “The Train Kept A-Rollin” followed by “I’m a Man.”
Cray’s performance three nights earlier was good, with much to commend, but alas though it smoldered at times it never quite caught fire. There was a discernible amp hum throughout much of the show, made more noticeable by Cray’s penchant for taking the volume down and quietly teasing out the notes as in “Right Next Door (Because of Me).”
Some of the highlights were when Cray covered other people’s material. He sang beautifully on Bill Withers’ “The Same Love that Made Me Laugh.” “Sittin’ on Top of the World” benefited from a playful arrangement that reinforced the song’s rueful charm, and Cray’s band meshed wonderfully on Tony Joe White’s “Aspen, Colorado.”
So what’s not to like? Well, the performance lost a lot of momentum mid-set, when “You Had My Heart,” “Great Big Old House” and “I Can’t Fail” followed one another, earnestly perhaps but with the effect of throwing a wet blanket on a campfire. The subsequent instrumental “Hip Tight Onions” restored some life to the crowd, and oldies “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” and “The Forecast (Calls for Pain)” were both excellent, even with a little amp hum. But the final encore “Time Makes Two” was just ponderous, the drummer playing with mallets and the keyboard oozing orchestral profundities.
LIVE: The Robert Cray Band @ The Egg, 3/13/19