Otis Clay’s most recent CD, This Time Around (Bullseye Blues & Soul), reunites him with Memphis-based producer Willie Mitchell, the mastermind behind Clay’s Hi Records glory years, 1968 to 1974. But the opening bars of the first cut, “You’re the One I Choose,” make clear this is no exercise in nostalgia: swirling strings, horns so choppy and precise they almost sound synthesized, and a serpentine pop-funk melody line all proclaim it a decidedly contemporary soul-blues outing. Clay’s vocals have undergone the most striking transformation: his old gospel grit hasn’t vanished, but mostly he seems determined to summon his smoothest croon. He intones the chilling ballad “When Hearts Grow Cold” with disarming straightforwardness, ascending into a weary rendition of his trademark tight-throated wail. And on “You Never Miss Your Water,” an up-tempo burner credited to Chicago veteran Cash McCall, Clay resists the temptation to wreck the house; he drenches the tune in melancholy rather than stoking it with anguish. Even “Standing in the Rain,” despite its insistent rhythm and taut minor-key melody, finds Clay leaning back into the groove, not leaping headlong into it like he would’ve in his youth. But Clay’s autumnal serenity hasn’t diluted the intensity of his emotions at all; if he doesn’t sing about heartbreak with the same life-or-death desperation he used to, it’s because now he’s confident the feeling won’t undo him. Friday, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333. DAVID WHITEIS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Karen Pulfer Facht.