TO Jazz Review: Robert Cray Band + Digging Roots, June 27, Metro Square

Toronto – In several years of covering the Toronto Jazz Festival, I’ve largely avoided the fest’s ample blues offerings. I just don’t have a whole lot of affection for the genre, aside from a soft spot for some of John Lee Hooker’s old albums and the Blues Brothers. I don’t really know what contemporary blues is even supposed to sound like, frankly. Nevertheless, I did see the Robert Cray Band open for Eric Clapton four or five years ago and I remember liking that set, so I thought I’d take in Cray and opener Digging Roots on the jazz festival’s main stage Monday night.

First of all, I don’t have a single nice thing to say about Digging Roots. Taking the stage at 8:35 and playing for almost an hour, their set was too long by half, as were most of their songs. Their lyrics and themes were remarkably trite and insipid. Vocalist ShoShona Kish said one tune was about “speaking out for what you believe in, and more importantly peace”; the lyrics then largely consisted of the words “rebuild”  and “stand up” repeated over and over. Other songs about “planting seeds” and “free speech” were similarly riddled with song writing clichés. Their rhythm section is boring. Front man Raven Kanatakta is not a terrible guitarist, but his fondness for distortion is irritating and his voice is nothing special. Kanatakta and Kish’s occasional attempts to rap (at least, I think that’s what they were doing) and inspire audience participation were painful. There were those in the crowd that really enjoyed the set, so your experience may vary. The show’s rather annoying MC seemed to think Digging Roots’ recent Juno Award win made them worth listening to. Of course, the Junos have terrible taste in music. I disliked Digging Roots intensely. Let’s move on.

Cray and his band took the stage at 10:10 after a 45 minute set break. Unfortunately, my self-imposed curfew for jazz fest shows this week meant I was leaving at 10:45. My curfew is a function of living in the west end, working at 8:00 in the morning, and being on the wrong side of 30. Covering jazz fest was a lot easier when I lived at Bloor & Christie instead of Dundas & Kipling and was semi-employed, that’s for sure.

However, the six or seven songs I heard of Cray’s, which included “Phone Booth,” one of his best known tunes, were quite good. It’s easy to see why Cray is popular with blues fans. His guitar playing is top notch and his voice has just the right amount of whine to it to make it work. He’s a personable and funny stage presence, who went to great lengths to introduce his keyboard player, then to make sure the crowd remembered his name, did it again. He also said the persistent hum from his amplifiers was just the sound of the amps trying to sing along. His band, bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Jim Pugh, and drummer Tony Braunagel are quite good, doing a nice job on both Cray’s uptempo numbers and slow blues dirges.

In a jazz festival full of innovative and creative music, however, I can’t help but wonder if this kind of blues is a little stagnant. Though Cray is a very capable guitar player, the 12-bar blues has been the basis that John Lee Hooker and the Blues Brothers and hundreds of other blue musicians have been relying on for decades now. And how many different ways can you write a song about your baby being gone? To give Cray credit, even though he went to the “my baby’s gone” well frequently, one song was about being glad that his baby was gone so, y’know, it was a twist.

If you like the blues, I can say you should definitely check out Cray sometime, though if you like the blues you probably already know this. If you’re kind of indifferent to the genre, Cray is probably as good an example of it as anybody. But I think from here on out I’ll go back to mostly avoiding the blues acts in the jazz festival lineup.

Posted on by Brian in Toronto Jazz Festival