Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues” trumped live blues Sunday night: On the evening the PBS miniseries premiered, the Greek Theater was less then half filled for a triple bill co-headlined by guitarist Robert Cray.
It’s an interesting conundrum — in the congressionally declared “Year of the Blues,” a show by a real, live contemporary bluesman goes begging. But then Cray really doesn’t fit into the paradigm. In place of songs from the gritty delta, Cray plays a kind of middle-class blues. His latest album, “Time Will Tell” (Sanctuary), references classic blues subjects in songs such as “Back Door Slam” and “Survivor,” but its roots are firmly in suburbia.
And Cray played like a man who felt like going home. The result was a set of music that was technically proficient (his guitar mastery is never in question) but polite, dull and so tasteful it lacks any flavor.
Cray’s set also suffered by having to follow John Hiatt and the Goners. Rumpled and sly where Cray is slick and straightforward, Hiatt barreled through his hourlong set with verve and humor. He’s an easy raconteur, introducing songs with references to Neil Diamond, Mr. Rogers, the recall election, Viagra and the joys of marriage. The short set showed off the wide range of his songs, from the winking “Tiki Bar Is Open” and “Almost Fed Up With the Blues” (the latter from his recent New West album “Beneath This Rough Exterior”) to the tender “Feels Like Rain.” But most impressive were the reunited Goners, especially guitarist Sonny Landreth, whose slide work was the highlight of the evening.
The night was opened with a appearance by the Blind Boys of Alabama, who again showed how the sacred and secular mixed to form the blues in their brief, subdued set.