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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
Hunter


JAMES HUNTER AND HIS BAND
The Jazz Café, Camden, London, August 1st 2007

Summer’s come to London – or to be more accurate London’s gone in search of the summer. The place feels deserted – empty early morning streets, desolate school playgrounds, spare seats on the trains. This seasonal exodus is the only reason I can think of to explain the fact that the Jazz Café is only about two thirds full for this first of two nights of the superb James Hunter and his band. Hunter’s album. ‘People Gonna Talk’, was one of the highlights of 2006, and it earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album. It also topped the Billboard charts in the US. It’s a brilliantly constructed piece of 1960s style R&B – think Sam Cooke and you wouldn’t be too far from the spot – recorded at Liam Watson’s Toe Rag Studios, which specialises in using analogue recording equipment (Watson also hosted the White Stripes for Elephant). The result for Hunter is perfect – too perfect for some, who accuse him of being a nostalgic imitator with little original talent. Not fair I would say – there’s a real contemporary verve about the record and the songs, all original compositions, are witty and pleasingly lyrical (“Strike me dead if I don’t love you, and I’d be damned if I do”).

Hunter’s been around for years – he’s 43 so fame has taken some time to arrive, a reward for persistence. One of his former incarnations was as ‘Howling Wilf and the Veejays’, and he was also well known on the busking scene in London before the early nineties when he was taken under the wing of Van Morrison, with whom he performed for a number of years. Having got his band together the album emerged as a result of their playing at a private party thrown by a friend in New York. Fortune, it is said, favours the brave.

He hits the stage like a rod of lightning (what do they put in the dressing room tea these days?) and spends the rest of the evening working through the album’s fourteen songs, throwing in a few old ones along the way. The band are as tight as a … well, uncharacteristic sensitivity prevents me from completing the metaphor – but they are. Drums, double bass, keyboards, and on tenor and baritone sax the Barlinnie Twins – Damian Hands and Lee Badau – a heady combination of note to note perfection.   Barlinnie Twins
Hunter rasps out his vocals and plays with an absurd guitar technique – trying to be both rhythm and lead at one and the same time. It looks ugly – all fingers and thumbs – but sounds fantastic. Afterwards, not quite an interview, I ask “James. Thinking about your guitar technique, it’s highly idiosyncratic, very unusual, and frankly probably not what people expect to see. What made you play the guitar like that?” “Mental illness” he replied.
Well, our guests, Big Bobby and Little Claire are going mental at the vibe. The house is rocking – Hunter’s doing old-time Mississippi guitar tricks and even playing that Gibson with his teeth - and it feels like this is what a summer’s night really ought to be. You should catch Mr Hunter if you get the chance, and at worst you should buy the album. Whiskyfun readers in the United States – he’s heading your way. Treat him with the respect he deserves. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)



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