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Still smokin'

After 30-plus years of playing the blues, Robert Cray is only becoming more passionate about his craft

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When Robert Cray released his major-label debut Strong Persuader in 1986, disco had long since died, glam bands were losing their glitter, and grunge hadn't yet covered the world in flannel.

The time was right for a new sound, and Cray brought it. With a soul singer's voice, emotion-rich songwriting and blazing blues guitar, he helped jumpstart a renaissance in roots music and earned a Grammy in the process.

Since then, Cray has become a staple on the blues scene, garnering four more Grammys, releasing a total of 17 albums and performing with a dizzying list of musical giants: B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Chuck Berry, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and more.

Still, he remains modest. Asked if there's anyone he still wants to add to the tally, Cray laughs and says, "I haven't looked at it that way, but I have had the opportunity to play with some amazing musicians."

There's likely to be a lot more of those opportunities in the future, too; if you look at the age of your average blues artist, Cray, at 54, is just getting warm.

"For blues guys it's a timeless thing, but for rock 'n roll guys, it gets real hard to slide into those leotards," he jokes.

For Cray, age is no problem; he's been playing the blues for 30-plus years, and he still tours with the Robert Cray Band keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Sevareid and drummer Kevin Hayes. They've played over 1,000 gigs together since 1989.

"It works because we're friends," Cray says. "Some of the guys in our crew have been around even longer."

But longevity doesn't equal boredom.

"Every night is a challenge," Cray says, reciting a list of things that could go wrong from facilities issues, to microphones, to remembering lyrics.

"And to top it all off," he says, "we don't use a set list."

Though Cray knows his fans won't allow him to leave out favorites like "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door," he manages to always call out a few surprises.

One example: a recent Cray anti-war anthem, "Twenty," which strays from his usual themes of love, jealousy and heartache to tell the story of a 20-year-old who doesn't return from Iraq. He sees it as a tribute to the soldiers, who, like his father, gave a lifetime of service to the Army.

Cray's otherwise cool, calm voice gets heated when he talks about it.

"It gets me riled up," he admits. "I don't know why more people don't speak out."

It's that passion, Cray says, that keeps him going.

"We fantasized about this as youngsters to travel the world and play with the greats. How could we not love it?"

jill@csindy.com

Bringin' It Back Home Tour, featuring Robert Cray and Keb' Mo'
Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.

Saturday, Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $40; call 520-SHOW (7469), or visit ticketswest.com or the Pikes Peak Center.

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