Review: Larry McCray ‘Blues Without You’

Larry McCray

By Martine Ehrenclou

Award-winning blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Larry McCray is set to release the record of his 30-year career, Blues Without You on March 25 via Keeping The Blues Alive Records featuring Joe Bonamassa, Warren Haynes, Joanna Connor and Reese Wynans. Produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, the 12-track album refreshes the formidable bluesman’s career and reminds us that Larry McCray is the real deal.

Bonamassa’s KTBA Records has developed quite the roster of highly talented artists and now Larry McCray is one of them.

Born in rural Arkansas and relocating to Michigan, McCray released a number of albums since the 80’s. His rock and soul infused blues, baritone vocals and blazing guitar chops attracted major labels and in 2000 he won the Orville H. Gibson Male Blues Guitarist of the Year and the “Sunshine” Sonny Payne Award for Blues Excellence in 2015. During that time, McCray played with BB King, Buddy Guy, Albert King, John Mayall, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, as well as many others.

No stranger to hard times, this blockbuster vocalist and guitar player skidded through several life challenges including successfully overcoming prostate cancer. Those of us that knew about Larry and his immense talents, were pulling for him. It wasn’t until he met up with Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith that a bright new chapter unfolded for him.

Blues Without You kicks off with “Arkansas,” a rocking, blues number about Larry’s home state and his life growing up on a farm. Backed by superb musicians, including buttery horns, Larry’s sinfully good guitar riffs and soulful voice get off to a running start with this celebration, spinning it into a blues scorcher in record time.

McCray’s blues are fresh and contemporary with nods to the past. He’s the kind of player who allows for space in between the notes. There aren’t many current guitarists who put that kind of emotion into their playing, showing deep-seated restraint when it’s called for.

Album standout “Good Die Young”, an up-tempo blues tune with great groove, opens with punchy horns, organ and Larry’s beefy guitar wizardry. Gospel-tinged with backing singers, McCray digs deep with his velvety, resonant voice. His past hardships are grist for the lyrics. With this one, he flips the music to feel-good rhythm and it’s his voice that dominates the proceedings.

The music instrumentation on Blues Without You is a mind-blower with McCray and the band. The music heavyweights include Larry McCray on lead guitar and vocals, Joe Bonamassa (guitar,) Josh Smith (guitar,) Reese Wynans (keyboards,) Travis Carlton (bass,) Lemar Carter (drums,) Jade MacRae and Dannielle DeAndrea (background vocals). ,) Steve Patrick and Jeff Bailey (trumpet,) Mark Douthit (saxophone,) Barry Green (trombone,) and more. Horn and string arrangements are by Calvin Turner.

McCray proves his rightful place in the spotlight with the standout “Breaking News,” contemporary blues tune with a 70’s vibe, jazzy feel and one heck of a groove. What a rhythm section. Soulful, lyrical saxophone and piano fills run throughout. About social injustice and the disheartening political situation, McCray serves up truth with his rich, compelling vocals and compelling guitar. He and the band come together in a perfect trifecta—exquisite performances from everyone involved, meaningful lyrics and a killer melody. A piece of this beauty is that McCray lets it rip on guitar and then pulls back with the band to play some sweet, subtle licks.

Changing up the vibe is the gritty, low down and dirty blues song, “Road House” by Albert King. This track will send you down to Texas in a hurry. A true showcase for Larry’s aggressive guitar chops, he’s fierce with a strong dose of Albert King-inspired string bends. This is blues with a capital B.

Slowing things down is the beautiful “Blues Without You (For Paul.)” Larry’s in his element, his voice expressive with full-bodied tone. It’s an ode to a lost friend, mournful with aching guitar, horns, strings, and backing singers. This is McCray’s crucial moment. It’s one of the most moving songs I’ve heard in a while, co-written by McCray and James Jabara. This gem will stand the test of time.

Shifting gears, “Mr. Easy” features Joe Bonamassa on a horn-filled, jazzy, soul-blues tune. Not enough has been said about Larry’s vocals; they are part Luther Vandross and part Jeffrey Osborne with his own sound and style. With the track’s laid back feel, it fits McCray perfectly. He vamps a bit before Bonamassa’s fiery guitar solo that smokes all the way to New Orleans. Larry and Joe trade guitar licks in a thrilling exchange before a keyboard solo by the brilliant Reese Wynans.

Be sure to check out “Down To the Bottom” featuring Warren Haynes and “Drinkin’ Liquor and Chasin’ Women” with Joanna Connor.

Highly recommended.

Watch “Breaking News”

Larry McCray

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