Last week, to get in the mood for 2018 BluesFest, I cued up Detroit bluesman Larry McCray’s brand-new cover of the classic 1973 Marshall Tucker Band tune “Can’t You See.”
Just when a heartbroken McCray started to sing about getting on a freight train and not caring where it goes, a real North Lansing locomotive howled outside my window like a mate-less, 20-ton elk. It howled again at the Turner Street crossing, just as McCray’s soaring guitar solo reached a high of sweet hurt.
The blues is all about crossroads. So it’s only fitting that McCray will take the Main Stage at 7:30 Friday to headline a double-crossing, blues-androck-infused lineup at Michigan Blues Fest this weekend, right in the middle of Turner Street, within earshot of that same North Lansing train.
The crossing will run right through Turner Street this year when drummer Jeff Shoup’s Jimi Hendrix Experience tribute band takes to the street Friday at 9:30, with McCray in tow, along with Lansing stalwarts like guitarist Greg Nagy, Steve Forgey, also known as Frog, and keyboard man Mike Skory. A Beatles tribute band, Abbey Road 2.0, will take the main stage at the same time Saturday, with Nagy, Skory and a supporting cast of Beatle-philiacs.
Even McCray, a 25-year veteran bluesman, is in the mood to cross over, but he’s doing it on his own terms. His latest project is a tribute to the blues’ boisterous baby brother, rock and roll. “Can’t You See” is one of 12 rock covers on McCray’s latest CD, “The Gibson Sessions,” he’ll roll out at BluesFest, along with the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music,” Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” a searing take on Creedence Clearwater’s “Born on the Bayou” and more.
“I always wanted to play songs like that, and I thought it would be nice to do something fun, with no pressure,” McCray said.
“It gave me another outlet, another form of blues, because they’re related.”
McCray relished the chance to nestle rock back into its roots while giving a rhythmic fizz to his fervent take on the blues.
“I’m a blues player first,” McCray said, “but blues is like a mushroom. You put it in with other things and it takes on the character of whatever you infuse it with. That’s a good thing for the music, because it allows for growth.”
Millions of rock fans discovered the blues only after rock stars like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the Beatles acknowledged their debt.
McCray went the other way and discovered rock in his late teens, after his family moved from a farm in Arkansas to Saginaw, Michigan. His parents and grandparents all played instruments, but his older sister, Clara, played a “down and dirty” guitar and got Larry started on her Gibson SG.
McCray was in his teens when he first became aware of rock ‘n’ roll. “I had different friends and buddies when I was older, and then I started to make my own choices,” he said.
Until he was 19 or so, he thought Jimi Hendrix was a white rocker. “When I found out he was a black dude, it turned my world upside down,” he said.
McCray worked at General Motors’ Saginaw Plant in his 20s, playing in bands and bars along the way. But the siren call of music was stronger than the security of the line. He signed with Virgin Records’ Point Blank label a month shy of being vested in GM’s retirement plan and never looked back.
His first album, “Ambition,” drew international attention and the praise of Albert Collins and Eric Clapton. He’s played with all four of his blues idols, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Albert King and Freddie King, and recorded with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and many other blues greats. He has especially fond memories of B.B. King.
“The last time I saw him, he was telling me all about how he needed help, because he had women problems,” McCray said.
King told McCray he had two women in his dressing room and they were both mad at him.
“I said, ‘B.B., you do have a problem,” McCray said.
Tackling an album of rock classics, he worried that some people might think, “Who does he think he is?” “It was a challenge to find ways to approach them differently, and yet still not lose the identity of it,” he said. “Especially when it came down to singing.”
But hearing classic rock tunes, usually sung in a high tenor or soprano, get a low ride in King’s coppery, dark baritone is half the fun of “The Gibson Sessions.”
McCray takes a back seat to no one when it comes to musicianship, but he loves how blues music is rooted in the down and dirty business of living.
“The great blues players taught the rest of the world that regardless of how well or how bad you play, if you can come across as convincing and tell your story, you have value in the music business,” he said.
Old Town Blues Fest Free
Friday, Sept. 21 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Turner Street, Old Town Neighborhood, Lansing Full schedule: www.oldtownbluesfest.com