Ray Price was not blessed with a classically perfect voice. His range is moderate, his propensity for flash practically nonexistent. But despite, or perhaps because of, those limitations, the Texan troubadour emerged from the Western music scene a half century ago to establish himself as one of the great song stylists of our time.
At this, his first New York City appearance in at least 35 years, Price languidly but lovingly worked his way through a varied program that manifested abundant warmth and surprising takes on some well-trod standards.
Price played it fairly close to the vest on an opening salvo of “Crazy Arms” and “Heartaches by the Number,” both of which featured heart-tugging steel guitar licks from Steve Pelousek. It didn’t take long, however, for the singer to tweak expectations, delivering a spare rendition of “Release Me” and a version of “Spanish Eyes” that side-stepped the melodrama often associated with the song.
Subtlety was Price’s watchword this evening, and he meted out emotions with remarkable skill on songs he popularized (like “I Won’t Mention It Again”) and songs he’s since mastered (Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” which, in his hands, took on a rare blend of resignation and desperation).
Although best known as a balladeer, Price also gave voice to his wry honky-tonk side during the well-paced 90-minute set, swinging through tear-in-your-beer tales like “Burning Memories” and “Better Class of Losers” (culled from his just-released Buddah album “Prisoner of Love”). The barroom ambiance was furthered by pianist Moises Calderon, who buoyed Price’s unfussy baritone with a high-lonesome tenor — and proved capable of handling the spotlight alone on a burlesque traipse through “El Rancho Grande.”
Price’s six-piece band was augmented by a dozen-strong string section recruited from the Manhattan School of Music. Rarely obtrusive, the young musicians provided sensitive, subtle counterpoint to material as diverse as “Danny Boy” and Hank Williams’ “Mansion on the Hill.”