Non-Comm week recap, with Robert Cray and The Dream Syndicate, plus The xx at the Mann

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Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm at the Non-Commvention at the World Cafe Live.

I only saw nine bands in two days at Non-Comm this year, because I blew off the first night of the annual radio confab hosted by WXPN-FM (88.5) to go see The xx at the Mann Center

Even though that meant that on Wednesday I missed Blondie (watched them on Fallon), Brent Cobb (seen him twice recently), Chicano Batman (they’re playing the Xponential festival in July) and The Districts (doing two shows at Union Transfer in August), I stand by my decision.

It was a lovely albeit-80-plus degree evening, and this season’s debut of the Skyline Stage at the Mann, the open-air roofless hilltop space that affords a postcard view of the Center City skyline.

.@thexx at the @manncenter

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Plus, The xx - the British trio guitarist Romy Madley Croft, bassist Oliver Sim and producer-DJ Jamie Smith - touring behind their top-notch third album I See You, were terrific, and perfectly suited to the sultry setting. They’re expert at making stylish electro-soul music that moves from chilled out intimacy to something close to communal, dance floor - or in this case, dance lawn - release. But they’re never the slightest bit obvious about it, and always project a thinking person’s warmth and humanity. Love that Hall & Oates-sampling "On Hold," too, sampled here:  

But on to Non-Comm. I saw a lot of quality stuff in the upstairs-downstairs shuffle that goes on during the radio confab, where acts are playing often playing before small crowds than they’re accustomed by the audience are made up of (mostly) public who the acts hope will go home and play their songs.

The acts I saw that acquitted themselves well were many. Philly native and now Nashville based guitarist Ron Gallo tore it up upstairs on Thursday. Young New Orleans guitarist and underrated soul singer Benjamin Booker stood out on Friday. English folk singer Laura Marling fronted a six piece group that fleshed out her luminous folk songs in impressive ways. The Mavericks served a reminder at what a fabulously soulful party band they are, with a far broader definition of Americana than most. They’re back in town at the Sugar House Casino on June 10.

Warren Haynes woolly, jammy roots-rock couldn’t hold my attention, but subtly jangly New Jersey band Real Estate did the trick. Hurray For the Riff Raff played a solid set upstairs in the sweltering room upstairs on Friday, though the band’s proud, well-meaning songs about immigrants and underdogs are starting to get weighted down with the seriousness of their message.

But the real reasons i wanted to write about NonComm were the two final acts to play in the mercifully cooler downstair room, where the air conditioning was working over time:  The Dream Syndicate and Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm.

The former’s leader, Steve Wynn, said it was the group’s first show in Philadelphia in 30 years. (Tonight, back at the World Cafe Live, they’ll play their second.) Wynn, who reunited the band in 2012, shared twin guitar duties on the WCL stage with Jason Victor on songs that ripped and snarled with industrial psych-rock force. When the singer said they only had one more song to play, it seemed like it might have been a cheat of a short set. But when that last song turned out to be the 12 minute blowout “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” from 1984’s Medicine Show, nobody complained.

After HFTRR’s set upstairs, Cray closed out the confab. I hadn’t seen the veteran bluesman in years, and frankly haven’t followed him that closely since the quality of his material lapsed in the years after he hit it big in the mid-1980s with cheating song packed albums like False Accusations and Strong Persuader.

So I wasn’t prepared for Cray’s set to be as good as it was. He has a new album recorded in Memphis with drummer and producer Steve Jordan, who was a mighty force on his kit on Friday night, leading a three horned band that also included bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass and his brother Charles on organ., who played with producer Willie Mitchell on Al Green’s ‘70s hit.

Lord, were they tight. No offense to the other musicians I saw at Non-Comm, but Cray and Hi Rhythm’s hour long set was a schools-in-session case of masters at work. If anything, Cray is a better guitar player, with more dramatic flair - yet the good sense to always hold something back - than he was in his commercial heyday.  

And if songwriting has not always been his strength, he’s written a few quite good ones on the new Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm album, which exist alongside under appreciated classics by Bill Withers and Sir Mack Rice.

It was a thrill to watch Cray and Jordan, who’s always been Keith Richards go-to drummer when not with Charlie Watts, play off each other, and Cray versions of songs by Tony Joe White and the ‘5’ Royales were full of feeling and delivered with passion and precision, bringing the the confab to a winning conclusion.   Cray and the band are back in the area at the Keswick Theater in Glenside on June 2.