James Hunter not only has the vocal ability to create memorable R&B, he’s a triple-threat, a talented guitarist who writes and arranges all of his own music. And don’t get the notion that this is an oldies act, because Hunter invests his soul with contemporary verve, and tasty flavors from ska to samba.
Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, those pillars of soul music from the golden age of rhythm and blues, are long gone but never forgotten.
Nearly no performer since has been able to craft that elusive combination of grit and emotion, gospel-tinged fervor leavened with smooth melody, those irresistible rhythms with rock ’n’ roll dynamics.
Who would guess that the next performer to evoke comparisons to all three of those icons would be a former railroad worker from Colchester, England? James Hunter not only has the immense vocal ability to create such memorable R&B, he’s a triple-threat, a talented guitarist who writes and arranges all of his own music. And don’t get the notion that this is an oldies act, because Hunter invests his soul with contemporary verve, and tasty flavors from ska to samba.
Hunter performs at the Paradise in Boston on June 6, and his latest album, ``The Hard Way,'' will be released June 10. After a short string of club dates, Hunter and his quintet will be opening a series of Willie Nelson’s summer concerts across the country.
After years of scuffling around the music scene in England, Hunter released his American debut ``People Gonna Talk'' in 2006 to immediate acclaim, and a Grammy nomination.
The title cut was one of that album’s most popular songs, a Sam Cooke-like ballad with a gently bumping reggae foundation. The tune is a fine example of how Hunter makes music in the classic mold with contemporary flavors. Before that year was out he’d criss-crossed the United States several times, headlining his own club tour, and opening summer tours for Robert Cray and Susan Tedeschi.
When we begin our chat with Hunter, who was still home in England, we mention how impossibly tight and superb his backing quintet was on that 2006 tour. Those were all young American musicians from Upstate New York, Hunter responds, and while he loved their work, he has better news this time around.
``Really the band you all saw that first time around was my American lineup, and not the band I’ve had for 20 years here in England,'' said Hunter. ``On that first tour we were not making enough money to make it worthwhile to bring everybody over, but now we have taken steps to make sure everyone’s legal, and they’ll all be with me. The sound will be even more solid than before – of course, it should be, since we’ve been playing together so long that we’re all old codgers now.''
The noted Hunter humor aside, the singer, 45, is a vibrant and engaging performer. The new album contains R&B with a slightly harder edge than the mellifluous debut, and the title cut, for one, has more edge to it.
A special guest is famed New Orleans pianist/producer Allen Toussaint, who lends a decidedly Professor Longhair flair to ``Believe Me Baby'' and a couple other cuts.
``Hand It Over'' sounds like a sure single, an effervescent love song that seems like it has a samba bubbling underneath it.
The new album was recorded much like Hunter’s debut, in London’s Toe Rag Studios, with vintage equipment for a warm, human sound.
``Well, you know, the equipment was not vintage when we bought it,'' Hunter said with a laugh. ``But we have no problems delivering that same sound on tour, mostly because we have such a good sound man. ''
Hunter had recorded ``Believe Me Baby'' previously, on one of his English albums, but did a new version with Toussaint.
Hunter grew up in a musical family, and always loved R&B, but he was working as a signal locking fitter on the often antiquated British railway system when his real musical career began. Back in the mid-1980s he assembled a band and performed as Howlin’ Wilf and the Vee Jays. Before long he was able to give up the day job, and despite the silly name, the band released four records in England between 1986 and 1988.
In the early 1990s a Hunter fan convinced Van Morrison to check him out, and that led to a stint singing backup with Van the Man. Hunter finally went back to his real name, releasing his debut as James Hunter in 1996 on Ace Records, ``Belive What I Say,'' which featured a guest shot from his pal Morrison.
Another album was released in England in 2001, but Hunter’s career was admittedly languishing before two more fans from America took an interest in him. Steve Erdman and Kimberly Guise basically formed Go Records specifically to get Hunter’s music out in the U.S., and by the time Rolling Stone was calling that 2006 CD ``a treat not to miss,'' Hunter was finally on his way.
He’s repeatedly shrugged off his success by putting a spin on that old show biz maxim, ``an overnight success, after 20 years.''
Hunter said the songwriting is the toughest part of his work, but he loves to incorporate disparate elements into his classic- sounding soul.
`Back in the Howlin’ Wilf days we were doing predominantly covers, but fairly obscure covers,'' Hunter pointed out. ``We were doing that for a while before we started trying to push over our own stuff. I can’t say the songwriting has gotten any easier, but I have become better at it. Some of the songs on the new album are thought out more, but yet some are actually thought out less – and just came out organically. Overall, songwriting never has gotten easier for me.''
Hunter said fans who enjoyed his American band will find much to savor with his longtime British comrades.
``The most important thing about a live show is projecting that feeling that the band is having a good time, too,'' he said. ``Especially with my English lineup, that will be true. Fans will see that we are so consistently disrespectful of each other onstage, in a good-natured way, that they can’t help but join in the fun.''
Jay N. Miller covers popular music on the South Shore and in the Boston area. If you have information or ideas for Jay about the local music scene, bookings, recordings, artists etc., send it to him by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Attn: Music Scene in the subject line.