Rock the museum: Larry McCray plays a young man's blues | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Rock the museum: Larry McCray plays a young man's blues 

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It sometimes seems that in the never-ending battle between blues traditionalists and modernists, only the music loses. In a corrupt variation on the feminist notion that "the personal is political," aficionados too often argue that what moves the soul, what inspires the feet to dance, signifies more than individual taste--that it labels one not just as a connoisseur or a tin-eared philistine but as a representative of social forces that would preserve or destroy an entire musical canon. Such arguments place a terrible burden on the artists. They're music lovers themselves, of course, trying to satisfy both economic necessity and aesthetic integrity, and they often get caught in the cross fire.

The arguments are equally heated on both sides. Those who revere older styles accuse the funk-rock-fusion crowd of not only adulterating a pristine art form but annihilating a legacy. According to this argument, traditional blues--usually defined as styles that originated in southern folk music and culminated in the late 50s or early 60s--is the authentic voice of 20th-century African American experience; to funk it up or pollute it with rock is to aid and abet white cultural imperialism in its relentless destruction of African American expression.

The more forward-looking often respond that the traditionalists want to keep the blues a museum piece--that nothing can live without growth and change. Roots are obviously important, but it's shortsighted, even racist, to suggest that the only "authentic" voice of African American culture is the voice of artists singing and playing in styles that largely predate modern fashion and technology, and whose roots are irrevocably intertwined with the legacy of oppression.

We've heard it all before, of course; in the 40s and 50s, a similar fight raged between lovers of traditional jazz and those who were attuned to the small-group experiments evolving into bebop. It's revealing that many of the former revolutionaries who championed the cause of Diz, Monk, Bud, and Bird now sound like their old antagonists as they decry fusion, world beat, and other contemporary genres.

That's the problem with these ideological turf wars; in retrospect, they often seem to be more about the passage of time than about art. In the 60s, many blues purists refused to give most soul music a listen; today musicians like Wilson Pickett and James Brown are regularly suggested as headliners for major blues festivals. Somehow black music seems to get more "authentic" among the intelligentsia when it's at least 20 years old.

As a young blues-oriented guitarist with both a love for heritage and a fiery determination to grow, Larry McCray is the type of artist likely to find his music used as cannon fodder by blues ideologues. McCray's credentials are about as bluesy as they can get: Arkansas-born, he moved to Saginaw, Michigan, in 1972 and became enamored of the music of such blues stalwarts as B.B. King, Elmore James, and Magic Sam. A few years later, in the timeless fashion of the archetypal young musician with a dream, he recorded an entire LP's worth of material in a friend's basement recording studio. He eventually got fired from his day job on a General Motors assembly line for talking back to his boss, and music became his full-time occupation. The homemade tape, meanwhile, eventually became Ambition, his acclaimed current debut LP on Point Blank Records, and critics began to extol the young singer-guitarist as the future of the blues incarnate. It's the type of blues biography of which myths are made.

McCray's music is nothing if not passionate. His leads soar with the exuberance of a young man living his lifelong dream, and he intersperses those stratospheric explorations with bursts of double- and triple-time dexterity. His leads' sinewy power is fired up even more by the churning heat his band provides. The arrangements are skintight (often featuring a two-guitar interplay reminiscent of 70s-era southern rock), and the drums and bass push everything along with an energy that fuses hard funk's boogity-shoe rakishness with the aural density of a 60s power trio.

The sparsely stated emotion many associate with blues is abandoned almost entirely in this explosive mix of passion, precision, and flamboyance. Depending on one's taste, the result is either a take-no-prisoners roar of defiance in the face of the emotional maelstrom of late-20th-century urban life or a rocked-out exercise in bludgeoning the senses into submission.

A few weeks ago at Buddy Guy's Legends, McCray showed that, although he's subject to the usual young player's excesses, he's got the chops and the musical vision to live up to at least some of the extravagant claims being made for him. His solos were iridescent, serpentine coils fired out in a stinging tone, heavy on the treble but with a piercing fullness reminiscent of early- to mid-period Eric Clapton. McCray's influences obviously lean heavily toward rock; he's cited guitar warriors like Steve Vai as influences, and he specializes in that soaring wall-of-sound ecstasy modern rock audiences seem never to tire of. The band complements him with riffs that sometimes approach the polished smoothness of a 70s band like the Doobie Brothers.

McCray's blues roots are most evident in his singing. His voice is throaty and full, tender on ballads and balls-out ecstatic on the up-tempo rockers he favors. It's the tension between that voice, the tormented exuberance of his leads, and the smooth ease with which his sidemen complement him that makes his music arresting. "I Don't Mind," for instance, was played as meat-and-potatoes rock/R&B fusion at Buddy Guy's, punctuated by a break that in its playful pop buoyancy sounded almost like Sgt. Pepper's. But McCray sang it with rugged conviction, and his solo cut in over the top, rising with sputtering jets of steam and heat, pulling everything else up along with it.

The club's echo-chamber acoustics made it difficult to catch a lot of McCray's lyrics, but what was audible was tantalizing. It's a common complaint that today's young bluesmen lack the adult frame of reference that often made earlier blues lyrics poetic; that may be true in a lot of cases, but a song like Chris Wheatley's "Sally's Got a Friend in New York City," one of the standout cuts on Ambition and a featured number at Legends, gives hope for the future. At first listen, the arrangement seems inappropriate: it's another turbo-charged blues rocker. But as the song develops, it becomes clear that the arrangement enhances the desperation of the story line--a lonely young woman dreams of faraway love and nightlife--emphasizing not the pathos but the liberating power of the rage underlying it.

This is not to say that McCray is the fully developed prodigy some have claimed. He's got speed to burn, and he flies through the octaves with a dexterity that boggles both eyes and ears. But you sometimes hear him straining to keep up with his own abilities: raw technique can overpower ideas. Especially on slow blues, one often wishes McCray would rein in his forces a little and give the music some space to breathe. A more controlled use of his gifts might evolve as his young man's passion is tempered by a more mature man's knowing.

There were signs at Buddy Guy's that this is already happening. "Secret Lover" was more emotionally complex than much of the evening's other material, and McCray stretched his rich, supple voice around the song to give it a riveting blend of depth and power. His dual guitar patterns with Vince Agwada lent a melodic edge to the balladry, and the song rose gracefully to a passionate crescendo. On the up-tempo side, when singer Larry Williams (also known as Martin Allbritton, of the Mellow Fellows) dropped in to do a guest vocal spot, McCray and the band achieved a swinging, breezy groove; Agwada came through with an especially impressive jazzy break. McCray demonstrated an admirable fleetness in his solo, and the entire band seemed happy to let a more mature side of its musical personality shine through.

But make no mistake--McCray's a rocker. He was at his open-throttle happiest on numbers like "Count on Me for Love," a full-roar flamethrower that again was rescued from chaos by McCray's vocal control, and from cliche by the imaginative arrangement and McCray's sophisticated blues/rock/pop crossover guitar stylings. He's found a formula that delights contemporary mainstream audiences--white audiences, at any rate--as much as it offends the more ideological among us: it's an imaginative melding of sophisticated arrangements, surefire technique, and impassioned rock energy.

So is this, then, the "future" of the blues? Well, no--the blues won't have one future, just as it doesn't have one past. Artists as diverse as Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Guitar Slim are part of a varied, multifaceted heritage; both McCray and young Delta traditionalist Lonnie Pitchford are among the rising stars of contemporary blues. We can expect a similar eclecticism as the form evolves.

But McCray, and others like him, will play a dominant role in defining both the sound and the role of the blues in coming years. He's rapidly finding a niche in Chicago; he's been working here regularly over the past few months, and despite the howls of his detractors, that's appropriate. This is, after all, the city that became world- famous not for its conservatism but for a remarkable series of stylistic revolutions that radically transformed the blues several times, over several decades. McCray and his hot-blooded contemporaries seem determined to carry that legacy of change and innovation into the 90s and beyond--and ideology be damned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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