The James Hunter Six played two shows Saturday night to delighted crowds at The Dakota. It’s really a perfect setting for what the man and his band does.
Hunter’s music is the very definition of blue-eyed soul. Numerous publications have anointed him Britain’s greatest soul singer. Pretty remarkable praise for a kingdom that’s produced the likes of Van Morrison. Then again, Morrison certainly recognized the talent and used him as back up vocalist and guitarist on two albums and tours. He proved it again tonight.
We walked into the 9:30 show without undue wait. Sometimes there’s a jam up outside The Dakota for the second show. Not this time. 9:30 on a Saturday night is when a headliner should take the stage. We’ve all had time for dinner. With The Dakota, it’s perfect timing to grab a glass of wine or cappuccino along with a desert. I truly enjoy the vibe of the place whenever I go.
Hunter is a throwback. His songs channel a time and place which is absolutely identifiable and true to the source. That band could have stepped directly out of the Stax Studios somewhere between the late 1950’s and early 60’s. That sound changed the musical landscape and many have built upon it. James Hunter Six may be writing all new songs, but unlike many of the other great bands riding a huge neo-soul revival, they remain purists.
The formula is as simple as it is effective. Fairly straightforward conceptually. Really difficult to execute. Begin with a front man that can sing like an angel. Put a guitar in his hands, if you want. But make sure that guitar doesn’t get in front of saxophones or the Hammond B3. Because until Buddy Holly came around and made it rock and roll, it just wasn’t kosher. A particular look sure helps. Doesn’t hurt to have those Bobby Vee or Bobby Vinton good looks. Hunter doesn’t sport a duck tail but he’s close. If you wanted to turn back the clock and ask for a guy who looked the part of that early heartthrob, you got it.
The Six doesn’t mess around. They got right down to business and let their music do the talking for them. On the few occasions when Hunter did chat with the audience, it’s quite a juxtaposition between his working class Essex accent and his classic Memphis soul singing voice. And when all is said and done, the show is all about that voice. Smooth, crooning and at times slipping into an authentic falsetto wail just like all those masters. A bit of Sam Cooke. A bit of James Browne.
I began to think about where this music came from; it’s interesting how so many of these lads from Great Britain fell in love with what African American artists were laying down in the US. In so many respects, it was a symbiotic relationship which ended up helping everybody. Most of all, the listeners.
Many black musicians were making music that was absolutely groundbreaking back in the post war years. The problem was that it was considered race music and it wasn’t distributed to a national audience. This was an industry decision more than a public opinion, I think. Down in Memphis, however, there were some people and recording studios that weren’t going to let that stop them. Sun Records and Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, etc heard it and began to break that barrier. People often forget that artists like Howlin’ Wolf, BB King and Junior Walker launched from that room.
Across town, Stax went right down the Soul highway rather than dabbling in early rock n roll and blues like Sun. Booker T, Otis Redding. Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave. This is the stuff James Hunter Six has obviously grown up with. The influence is strong.
In post war Britain, there was an entire young generation looking at rubble in the streets, few tried and true avenues to success, a real affinity for all things American (after all, the Yanks had helped them save their culture). All those GI’s and people involved in rebuilding Europe left a lot of records lying around. For that generation, there wasn’t really anything like race music. There was just good music. And they jumped on it, re-interpreted it and in many ways brought it back to us. Millions of American kids were introduced to things like the blues and soul by bands like The Stones or Van Morrison. Full circle.
While some might argue today this was a case of cultural appropriation, it actually helped to open doors for artists of color who had invented the genres and plied their trade for years to small audiences. As long as there was acknowledgement of the source, it was a good thing. In most respects, the manner in which the Brits adopted and reinterpreted was far more altruistic than the way things were being done in the US.
That’s one of the things that I enjoyed so much about James Hunter Six. They don’t try to hide the influences. At the same time, the way they do it is all their own. Pure authenticity that comes from nearly 30 years on the road. Never trying to reinvent or be something they aren’t. They’re a classic R&B soul band in every traditional sense. And they do it as well as anybody on the planet.
This was an interesting crowd. I expected something a bit older. A demographic that grew up on Stax or the early days of rock and roll. Instead, it was age mixed. It occurs to me that if you’re into this sound, you certainly know James Hunter. While the genre is closely identified with a time in history, the appeal of the music is timeless. Either that, or all the older people opted for the early bird special. 7pm does have its appeal to a certain group of music fans.
Throughout the rapidly paced show, the audience was attentive but reserved. I was certainly enjoying myself but it didn’t seem like the joint was jumpin’. That all changed when the band ripped into (If You Don’t) Believe Me Baby from the 2008 Grammy nominated The Hard Way album. This was prototypical early rock and roll. The live version featured extended guitar, organ and sax solos. It brought the audience to its feet.
Often when a band leaves the stage, the audience applauds as if they expect the band to return to the stage. It’s like an obligatory part of the formula rather than something spontaneous and authentic. It was heartfelt tonight. People demanded more. The band delivered with a stirring rendition of Talkin’ Bout My Love. What began as a call and response Hey, Hey, morphed into Hunter scatting to an audience that responded by singing back to him at a level I don’t know I’ve previously witnessed at The Dakota.
A clean, thoroughly entertaining 75 minutes spanning 19 tunes. I may be mistaken but the only song I recognized as a cover was (Baby) Don’t Do It by the Five Royales. An R&B classic that topped the Billboard Charts back in 1952. But it sure didn’t sound like 1952. It sounded like 2019.
And that’s the point. The music of this band is timeless. It may have its roots in 1952 but it sounds just as authentic with 2018’s Nick Of Time. Next time you need a dose of timeless R&B or soul, find yourself a James Hunter Six show.