Blues guitarist Robert Cray brought his band and special guest, Mavis Staples, to the Northern Lights Theater at Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee for a pair of shows on Feb. 9 and 10. Given the six Grammy awards between the two artists, both shows were packed at the intimate theater.
Mavis Staples was a little late to take the stage due to technical difficulties. A number of stage hands huddled around a mixing board at stage-left for roughly 20 minutes trying to sort out the problem. Eventually a loud power pop was heard through the soundsystem, suggesting the problem was fixed, and the crowd gave a gentle roar.
Staples moved well despite her recent corrective knee surgery and more than six decades of performances. She opened the show with "Wonderful Savior," waving her arms as the deep blues guitar seemed to get the soul flowing. Staples' rich vocals spawned goosebumps, whether it was the raspy delivery on Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" to her spontaneous gospel preaching to finish "Freedom Highway." There's no doubt that Staples' characteristic voice remains strong.
She provided a good deal of dialogue between songs, working her way through her storied past and speaking about events that influenced her songwriting. Other times she joked with fans, "Are you flirting with me?" She induced a vibe that was warm and well-received by the hospitable crowd. Fans joined in as she sang the popular "The Weight" and she finished with a shout-out to Levon Helms.
Backing vocalist Danny Gerrard showed his strength on "Too Close" while Staples took a short-lived break before joining in at the bridge. Staples left the stage after "We're Gonna Make It," leaving guitarist Rick Holmstrom and bassist Jeff Turmes to handle the crowd with an instrumental jam. Holmstrom wowed the crowd with an impressive blues guitar clinic that might have breached the 10-minute mark.
Staples returned to finish her set with "Eyes on the Prize" and she received a standing ovation as she ended the show with "I'll Take You There." She paused briefly as she was exiting to acknowledge the crowd and shook a few hands in the front row before she finally exited after an 80-minute performance.
It only under 20 minutes for the set change before the Robert Cray Band took the stage. His blend of blues guitar and funk quickly set the tone when he opened his set with "Phone Booth," tossing in a few mentions of Milwaukee into the lyrics for good measure.
Cray's tight guitar play and silky smooth vocals are the highlight of his show, but Dover Weinberg's keys and Richard Cousins' thick bass lines delivered necessary depth. Though Les Falconer was responsible for keeping the timing on drums, it was Cray who led the cast while his guitar gently wailed to the crowd.
Whereas Staples meandered between dialogue and songs, Cray kept his comments short and sweet. A simple, "Let's make it funky. You ready?" by Cray was enough to introduce "Poor Johnny." The opening notes to "Right Next Door" brought a cheer from the crowd.
The latter portion of his set was heavy on music from his most recent "Nothin But Love." Fans were treated to just under a 90-minute show, and nearly three hours coupled with Staples' performance. The Northern Lights Theater provided the perfect outlet for their music, proving again that it's one of the premier venues in Milwaukee.
Robert Cray Band 2014 tour dates:
2/11 - Madison, Wis. - Barrymore Theatre
2/13 - Lexington, Kent. - Lryic Theatre & Cultural Art Center
2/14 - Birmingham, Ala. - Alys Stephens Center
3/20 - Concord, N.H. - Capitol Center for the Arts
3/21 - Cranston, R.I. - Park Theatre
3/22 - Easton, Md. - Avalon Theatre
3/23 - Charleston, W.V. - Mountain Stage
3/25 - Huntington, N.Y. - The Paramount
3/27 - Norfolk, Conn. - Infinity Hall
3/28 - Bethleham, Pa. - Sands Bethelehem Event Center
3/29 - New York, N.Y. - B.B. King Blues Club
3/30 - Peekskill, N.Y. - The Paramount Hudson Valley
4/3 - Savannah, Ga. - Savannah Music Festival
4/4 - Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. - Ponte Vedra Concert Hall
4/5 - Biloxi, Miss. - IP Casino Resort & Spa
4/7 - Nashville, Tenn. - Shermerhorn Symphony Center
4/15 - Austin, Texas - One World Theatre
5/2 - Basingstoke, U.K. - The Anvil
5/3 - Cheltenham, U.K. - Cheltenham Jazz Festival
5/5 - Birmingham, U.K. - Town Hall Birmingham
5/6 - London, U.K. - Barbican
5/9 - Gateshead, U.K. - The Sage
5/10 - Cambridge, U.K. - Corn Exchange
5/11 - Norwich, U.K. - Theatre Royal
5/13 - Tunbridge Wells, U.K. - Assembly Hall
5/14 - Cardiff, U.K. - St. Davids Hall
5/16 - Manchester, U.K. - Bridgewater Hall
5/17 - Edinburgh, U.K. - The Queen's Hall
5/18 - Guilford, U.K. - G-Live
5/21 - Paris, France - La Cigale
5/22 - Antwerp, Belgium - De Roma
5/23 - Amsterdam, Netherlands - Paradiso
5/24 - Zwolle, Netherlands - Hedon
5/27 - Hamburg, Germany - Fabrik
5/29 - Munich, Germany - Muffathalle
5/30 - Karlsruhe, Germany - Substage
5/31 - Zurich, Switzerland - Kaufleuten