The Beat Goes On: Robert Cray, The High Kings, the music of composer George Walker and more

  • Celebrated bluesman Robert Cray brings his band to the Academy of Music on March 16. CONTRIBUTED/Jeff Katz

  • The music of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and pianist George Walker, right, will be performed at Smith College on March 6. Walker taught at Smith in the 1960s. VIA Wikipedia

  • Irish folk stars The High Kings play a warm-up show for St. Patrick’s Day when they come to the Academy of Music on March 15. Photo from The High Kings/Gazette file photo

  • The Murphy Beds, the folk duo of Jefferson Hamer, left, and Eamon O’Leary play The Parlor Room in Northampton on March 9. CONTRIBUTED/Anna Colliton

  • Acclaimed Paraguayan classical guitarist Berta Rojas performs at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst March 5. CONTRIBUTED/Guillermo Fridman

  • The James Brandon Lewis Trio beings its mix of saxophone, cello and drums to the Shea Theater in Turners Falls March 11 in the Jazz Shares series. Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares

  • The longtime alt-country/Americana band Son Volt plays Race City Live in Holyoke March 13; that’s the new name of the main performance hall at Gateway City Arts. Photo from Race City website

  • Mardi Gras flavor: New Orleans vocalist and trombonist Glen David Andrews brings his band to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence March 5. Bombyx Center website

Staff Writer
Published: 3/3/2022 1:01:53 PM

In a video interview he gave a couple years ago when he released his most recent album, “That’s What I Heard,” bluesman Robert Cray was asked to describe the record in three words. Cray pursed his lips a moment, looked to the side, then smiled and said, “Funky, cool and bad.”

That description serves pretty well for much of the music of Cray, who during a four-decade career has won five Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee, and toured around the world. Now the Robert Cray Band will make a stop at Northampton’s Academy of Music March 16 at 8 p.m.

Cray, who first gained a wide audience in 1987 with his crossover blues-rock hit “Smoking Gun,” has long won praise for his powerhouse vocals, distinctive vibrato-inflected guitar solos, and the rich mix of influences in his music. Aside from the blues, he’s mined soul, R&B, a bit of gospel and other American roots music while bringing plenty of pop savvy to his tunes.

“That’s What I Heard” is a case in point. The album was designed to try to capture “the kind of sound that early Sam Cooke records had,” Cray says, and in addition to the rocking intro tune “Anything You Want,” it includes a number of songs by some of his favorite artists, including Curtis Mayfield and Bobby “Blue” Bland, as well as the gospel number “Burying Ground” by the Sensational Nightingales, a 1950s quartet.

Born in segregated Georgia in 1953, Cray was in the news last November when he canceled a tour with Eric Clapton, a longtime friend and early champion of his music, after Clapton came out with a new song, “Stand and Deliver,” that summarized the English guitarist’s anti-COVID protocols stance with lines like “Do you wanna be a free man/Or do you wanna be a slave?/Do you wanna wear these chains/Until you’re lying in the grave?”

“I’d just rather not associate with somebody who’s on the extreme and being so selfish,” Cray told The Washington Post, saying he didn’t appreciate comparisons between COVID lockdown measures and slavery.

 

A century ago, when George Walker was born in Washington, D.C., racial barriers in the U.S. worked against Black classical musicians gaining much prominence in the field. But Walker, who died in 2018 at age 96, eventually broke through a number of those barriers, in particular as a composer, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 — the first African American composer to claim the award.

Walker also made his mark here in the Valley, where he taught at Smith College from 1961 to 1968, becoming the school’s first Black tenured faculty member.

Now, to celebrate Walker’s centennial, Smith’s Department of Music is presenting a concert at Sweeney Concert Hall Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. featuring several musicians playing Walker’s compositions — including his son, Gregory Walker, on violin, and his daughter-in-law, Lori Walker, on piano.

George Walker, also the first African American to earn a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, was a concert pianist earlier in his career and eventually wrote nearly 100 works of music — symphonies, concertos, solo piano pieces and more — that were based on the classical tradition but also drew from jazz and African-American spirituals.

Sunday’s concert, which is free, features 11 musicians on piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet, saxophone and vocals. It’s also the first of a series of events that Smith will host this semester to honor both George Walker and his former wife, the late Helen Walker-Hill, a pianist who earned a master’s degree in musicology at Smith in 1965.

 

The High Kings, one of Ireland’s most popular folk groups, have made a few visits to the Valley before, and they were set to do so again during the last couple of years until COVID-19 came along. But after a couple of postponed concerts, the band is back and, as a warmup for St. Patrick’s Day March 17, will play the Academy of Music March 15 at 8 p.m.

The Kings — Finbarr Clancy, Brian Dunphy, Darren Holden, and newest member Paul O’ Brien — play a mix of traditional Irish songs, more modern Celtic music and original compositions, handling 13 instruments between them including guitar, banjo, accordion and traditional Irish folk instruments such as the bodhran drum.

The band is especially known for its fresh interpretations of standards and its intricate harmonies. In an interview with the Gazette in 2018, Dunphy said he and his bandmates had all played solo or with other groups before they got together, and as such brought different backgrounds to the Kings.

One way to form their own sound was to craft rich harmonies, he said: “You get into a room and you rehearse and rehearse until you find that part that hasn’t been heard before.”

More music on tap

For another dose of Irish music, as well as other folk sounds from the British Isles, consider seeing The Murphy Beds, the duo of Eamon O’Leary and Jefferson Hamer, who play The Parlor Room in Northampton on March 9 at 7 p.m. The two New York-based players, who combine on bouzouki, mandolin and guitar, also apply their fretwork and close harmonies to original arrangements of American folk music.

Paraguayan classical guitarist Berta Rojas performs at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst on March 5 at 8 p.m., in a show produced by the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares is marking early March with two shows at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. Guitarist Michael Musillami and his trio of bass and drums will be joined by saxophonists Jason Robinson and Caleb Curtis and trumpet player Thomas Heberer for a March 5 concert, and on March 11 the James Brandon Lewis Trio (saxophone, cello, and drums) comes to the Shea. Both shows are at 7:30 p.m.

New Orleans trombonist and vocalist Glen David Andrews and his band will help ring out Mardi Gras when they come to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence on March 5 at 8 p.m. Bombyx will also host folksinger Ali Dineen, drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Oren Bloedow on March 12, and eclectic pianist Masayuki Hirano, otherwise known as Big Yuki, on March 13.

Son Volt, the venerable alt-country/Americana band, plays Race Street Live in Holyoke on March 13 at 8 p.m. Race Street is the new name for the big music hall located at Gateway City Arts, where the concerts are produced by DSP Shows.

As the Gazette noted last week, multiple shows that are part of the Back Porch Festival, produced by Signature Sounds, take place March 3-6 at venues in Northampton and Greenfield. Check out the details at backporchradio.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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