It was music heaven for fans of both great songwriting and superb blues guitar last Friday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. A crowd of about 1,000 were treated to a co-headlining show by the Robert Cray Band and John Hiatt. I’ve been a fan of Cray’s since first seeing the music video for “Smokin’ Gun” back in the '80s on MTV. A lifelong disciple of the blues, Cray broke through in 1986 with his album Strong Persuader, which featured that ridiculously catchy aforementioned tune. Since then, he’s gone on to gain the respect of blues and rock luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and the late John Lee Hooker.
On Friday night, Cray appeared to be in a playful, if not slightly forgetful, mood. Introducing his second song of the night, Cray seemed to have a memory lapse. “This next one is called...what’s it called?” said Cray, laughing at himself. “Ha! The song’s called ‘I’ll Always Remember You!’ I need to change the name of that song.”
After performing songs that ranged from more recent material like “Blues Get Off My Shoulder” and “Great Big Old House,” to older tunes such as “Right Next Door (Because of Me),” and the crowd-pleasing “I Shiver,” Cray and his band bid the crowd goodnight. Many were expecting an encore that might feature that '80s hit, “Smokin’ Gun,” but the house lights came up, without the crooner having played what is still his biggest hit to date. Apparently, Cray follows the philosophy of leaving the audience wanting more, especially when it comes to playing his most well-known song. Whatever the case may be, Cray’s upbeat demeanor and excellent blues guitar playing made for a great opening set.
After a short break, John Hiatt and his band, The Combo, took to the stage, opening with “Your Dad Did,” a song from the 1987 album Bring the Family. Hiatt was grinning from ear to ear as he kicked into that first song, and soon had the audience members on their feet dancing along with the music. Aside from a couple of new songs from his latest album, “Terms of My Surrender,” Hiatt kept the hits coming. Highlights included “Crossing Muddy Waters,” a mandolin-soaked “Cry Love,” a loud and rowdy “Perfectly Good Guitar,” and one of my favorite Hiatt compositions, “Memphis in the Meantime,” which had folks dancing in the aisles. After introducing a number as a song that was recorded by Bonnie Raitt and put his kids through college, The Combo backed him through a rough and loose version of “Thing Called Love.” For an encore, Hiatt returned to the stage to play a beautiful rendition of another of his best pieces, “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
All in all it was a great night of music from two artists who write and play two distinctly different types of American music that seem to go together much better than you might expect.