James Hunter at the 100 Club, 14th June 2003 and Fiddler’s Elbow, London, 22th June 2003
I have been a fan of blues and soul music now ever since chart R&B meant the likes of Otis Redding, of Sam & Dave, Aretha, the Tams, and Tami Lynn, and when, thanks to Mike Raven, you heard Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and James Carr on Radio One. The quality of blues/soul product by American artists made me flatly refuse to believe that the British counterparts could create anything as good; for me, only Steve Winwood managed to grasp the American sound, the feel of soul and blues, with Spencer Davis. For years I steadfastly held this view until, around the mid eighties, thanks to radio shows hosted by such as Paul Jones and Stuart Colman, I noticed there’d been a new generation of singers and musicians across the UK who had really taken the trouble to work at achieving a genuinely authentic sound (not just in R&B and soul, but in Rock’n’Roll too.) Most of these people still work in pubs and clubs today and, when it comes to choosing personal favourites, the Houserockers, Darrel Higham and the Rimshots cover Rock’n’Roll & rockabilly; Big Joe Louis and his band are the finest exponents of Chicago-styled blues, Mike Sanchez is, for me, the undisputed king of rockin’ R’ ‘& B, and the prize for soul/blues could only be claimed by James Hunter, simply the best, most expressive singer to emerge from this country, and at two excellent shows that Lee and I caught in the capital recently, he proved his worth a thousand times over.
Kicking off his career as Howlin’ Wilf, with his band the Vee-Jays, he initially sang and played harp (played real good too), then by the early ‘90s he became James Hunter (with his band The Jokers), swapped the harp for a guitar, and worked constantly around London; a 1996 album on Ace, ‘Believe What I Say’, included duets with Van Morrison and Doris Troy. Much more recently, he has made highly successful trips to the States and to Germany, and there will hopefully be a new album soon.
To the 100 Club show, then, and James’ current band consists of Damien Hand and Lee Badau on tenor and baritone saxes respectively, bassman Jason Wilson and drummer Jonathan Lee. All did an excellent job on regularly-featured songs such as James’ own ‘Better Luck Next Time’, ‘Kick It Around’ ‘Way Down Inside’ and ‘I’ll Walk Away’ and standards such as ‘Searchin’, ‘A Lover’s Question’, ‘Dearest’, ‘Hallejulah I Love Her So’, ‘Iko Iko’, and JB’s ‘Out Of Sight’. A standard of a more classic, jazzy nature featured by James, Ray Noble’s ‘The Very Thought Of You’ was treated with the appropriate amount of sensitivity, and there were a couple of new songs heard, from James’ pen, including the excellent ‘Don’t Come Back’. An instrumental played during the second set apparently requires a title; remembering ‘Wilf’s Wobble’ from 1986, how about ‘James’ Jump’??!! Also during the second set we heard an interesting, ska-like rendition of ‘You Send Me’, most unusual.
The second show in this feature took place at the Fiddler’s Elbow, in Chalk Farm, the new headquarters of the ‘Come Down & Meet The Folks’ people, an enjoyable music session held every Sunday afternoon and run by Big Steve of the Arlenes & Alan Tyler, a fine country singer/songwriter. On this occasion we saw the James Hunter Trio; on bass was the superb Dave Lagnado, who some years ago worked with, and earned the respect of, Jerry Lee Lewis. On drums was Brian Nevill, who I have seen working with Big Joe Louis, and Paul Ansell. James’ guitar style reminds me very much of Jimmy Nolen (James Brown’s axeman for many years) with its sharp rhythmic approach, and his soloing was pretty fiery, in a style sitting somewhere between Roy Buchanan and Buddy Guy. Us regular J.H. showgoers were treated to a few rarely-played goodies, such as the Drifters’ ‘Money Honey’, Arthur Gunter’s ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s ‘Gangster Of Love’, Jimmy Rogers’ ‘That’s All Right’, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ (with a nod to Van in terms of arrangement) and, probably most interesting of all, an easy-swingin’ take on the standard ‘September In The Rain’. An excellent show but, there again, they all are where James Hunter’s concerned; a below-par show would be simply unimaginable. Which endeth my account; for those who still refuse to believe a boy from Blighty can achieve a genuine soul/blues sound in the manner of a Brown, or a Cooke, go see James Hunter and be utterly amazed.
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