Those of us who were lucky enough to attend British musician and singer James Hunter’s Savannah debut back in 2011 will likely not forget it. At that point in his career, Hunter was already known worldwide to a relatively small, yet fervent, group of fans as one of the finest living exponents of traditional soul and R&B music on the contemporary scene.
His performance at Trustees Theater that night came courtesy of the Savannah Music Festival, which wisely paired Hunter and his expert backing band with the evening’s headliner, the estimable New Orleans pianist, songwriter and record producer Allen Toussaint.
Truth be told, however, while Toussaint’s slick and entertaining closing set at that show was an example of great professionalism that benefited greatly from the influential composer and arranger’s long and storied back catalogue of hits and deep cuts, it was Hunter’s intense, energetic and tightly focused opening set of nouveau-retro guitar-and-keyboard boogie tunes, romance-drenched laments and dance-oriented rave-ups that owned the night.
It’s not surprising that Hunter (who was just shy of 50 at the time of that concert) was capable of upstaging one of his own avowed inspirations. In addition to fronting his own band for decades, he had already spent no small amount of time working alongside the great Van Morrison as a backup vocalist on several of that legendary Irish blues and soul artist’s tours and albums. After the curtain fell on that festival double bill, I recall chatting with a still-excited and sweat-drenched Hunter outside the venue. He was in great spirits and said he hoped to play Savannah again at some point.
Well, it’s taken seven years, during which time his reputation has increased significantly. He and his band (The James Hunter Six) return once more under the auspices of the SMF. On April 7, he’ll share another double bill in our fair city — this time with American soul act Lee Field & The Expressions at the North Garden Assembly Room at Ships of the Sea Museum. Each group will play two complete shows, and as of Tuesday, tickets were still available for both at this wonderful covered outdoor venue, which (thankfully for a show of this sort) allows for standing and dancing, as well as for seated views of the stage.
Do Savannah caught up with Hunter a couple of weeks ago during his worldwide tour in support of his group’s excellent new LP, "Whatever It Takes," on the Daptone Records label.
Do Savannah: Was there a defining moment when you decided to become a professional recording artist and/or stage performer? If your path was more instinctual and organic, how did you drift into this?
James Hunter: I don't think there ever was a defining moment that led me to take this up for a living. It started with hearing certain styles of music, becoming enraptured by them and trying to emulate that. Once my attempts to reproduce it got something like a favorable response from people, and I started being invited to play (sometimes for money!), it was a short step to feeling a living could be scraped out of it.
Do: How do you pay homage to a pre-existing genre of music and move the style and approach forward without slipping into re-creation?
Hunter: I've always tried to avoid treating this kind of music as an unalterable holy scripture, which would kill off it quicker than you can say "heritage industry." A mistake many "revivalists" make is to wear this music as a fashion accessory rather than use it for its intended purpose — a means of expression.
You should be writing what you're thinking about, rather than trying to imagine what Sam [Cooke or Moore] or Otis [Redding] would have said if they were around. Which is why I wrote "Free Your Mind," an attack on religious bullying that many of my church-reared musical heroes wouldn't have touched with an anointed barge pole.
Do: Your new LP was tracked straight-to-analog tape. How did this rather tricky process affect your approach? Was much of the arranging done in the studio, or were these songs already tight through live performance?
Hunter: Recording on tape doesn't affect our approach to arranging the songs, as we still would try to get it down as much live as possible. The basic arrangements and horn lines are usually sketched out in advance by myself and presented to the band, who often contribute their own improvements. Gabe [Roth, producer] will often have a lot of further input into the arrangements once we get in the studio, particularly with the drum patterns.
Sometimes the more confident we are of the song, the more takes we'll do to get it perfect. If it's a song that's relatively new to us, we'll use the first take that sounds reasonably competent! I think there were only two songs on this latest set we had tried live before we recorded them.
Do: You are the first British artist signed to the pioneering Daptone label. Why Daptone?
Hunter: Our previous record company had us record with Gabe Roth for our last outing with them, and the experience made us want to work with him again. Once our contract expired, we hotly pursued Daptone Records, who seemed vaguely interested. Somewhere between our manager's diplomacy and my telling them they were a bunch of girls’ blouses if they didn't sign us, we managed to persuade them.
I've always liked Daptone's overall aesthetic and totally bought into the romanticism of their backstory, what with all the artists contributing their skills to the building of the studio. Truth be told, I'm a little envious at not having been involved at that stage (I did help Gabe dismantle a temporary studio once after we'd recorded but that's much more in line with my abilities). I certainly hope we will continue with them.
Do: If you were no longer touring, can you see yourself as a studio artist only?
Hunter: I would probably miss the audience feedback if I were to stop touring, but recording is a different pleasure entirely. You have more — if not total — control over how it comes out, and it's always there after you've gone.
Do: Who is a musical artist that you adore, but which might seem completely out of whack with the public’s perception of you?
Hunter: A favorite of mine is comedian and singer Ronald Frankau, who was popular in England in the 1930s. He would often sing or perform monologues in character as the archetypal "upper class twit" and in other songs — such as "I'd Like to Have a Honeymoon With Her" — he'd relate various romantic encounters in a lascivious tone that BBC censors deemed unfit for broadcast. Something about his style is so peculiarly British, it makes me feel prouder of my nationality than most of the rubbish we insist on flag-waving about.
Do: You have a memorable speaking voice. Have you ever been done any voice-over work, such as film or TV narration?
Hunter: I never have. I was once asked if it was me who had done the voice of a cockney lizard in a spectacularly unfunny series of commercials and I was proud to say it wasn't.
Do: Was your last SMF performance your first visit to Savannah? What do you recall about that show?
Hunter: It might have been the first time. Was that when Allen Toussaint was on the same bill? He got me up with him to do "Get Out of My Life Woman" and "Slippin' and Slidin'.” I miss him very much.