By Jeremy Miles
American bluesman Robert Cray arrives at the Bournemouth Pavilion on Wednesday, June 22 with a tour that celebrates what is fast turning out to be a very special year in his long career.
So far 2005 has found him celebrating his thousandth gig with his current band, being inducted into the Hollywood RockWalk alongside Clapton, Hendrix, and BB King and also featuring in two segments of Martin Scorsese's critically acclaimed blues tribute Lightning In A Bottle.
Then there is the small matter of his superb new album, Twenty, which finds Cray and his band exploring a variety of influences that range from blues and rock to gospel, soul and even a touch of reggae.
Produced by Cray and his long-time keyboard player Jim Pugh, it's a masterful work which further establishes his credentials as an intelligent and sophisticated guitarist while underlining the breadth of his musical experience and knowledge.
Speaking from his home in LA early last week, Cray was making last-minute preparations for the UK tour and clearly excited about playing music from the new album for his British fans.
"What I like most about this album," he says, "is the variety of songs. We covered a lot of bases." He is particularly hopeful the message of the title song - the story of a young soldier who dies defending an oil pipeline in Iraq - "fighting the rich man's war" - hits home.
Cray like many Americans on the liberal left is dismayed with the political manoeuvring that cleared the way for invasion by duping a nation into believing that Saddam Hussein was in some way responsible for the attack on the twin towers.
He also knows from personal experience that the soldiers on the ground are largely innocent victims in a political power struggle that is about control and money.
For Cray himself grew up on American Army bases and his father served in Vietnam. "I understand what it means to be a serviceman, I understand that you are sent to do a job, that you do what you are told, that you obey the commander in chief.
"The guy in the song has been lied to. He didn't know that he was going to end up in Iraq or the kind of horror that's going on there."
Even though Cray knows that the majority of his audience will support his views, he is adamant that "these things need to be talked about".
Content apart, the album is tangibly fresher and more urgent sounding than some of its recent predecessors. Cray says this is the direct result of co-producer Pugh coming to him and suggesting that on this occasion they might try going into the studio without any prior rehearsals.
Studio time is expensive, so this wasn't a decision that was taken lightly but Cray and Pugh reasoned that they wanted a "live feel" and that the last thing they needed was to over rehearse.
So they headed for the recording sessions in December and January armed only with bunch of demo-tapes and the expertise and intuitive communication that comes from a thousand gigs together.
It was a strategy that has paid off with a seriously tasty piece of work. Or as Cray himself puts it: "We took advantage of the fact that we've been playing together for so long that we have a 'feel' for what each of us is going to do. Mostly what you hear on the record are first takes."