The return of bluesy R&B

British musician James Hunter embraces the swinging sounds of the '50s and '60s on his first U.S. release

September 14, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

James Hunter is about 50 years behind the times, and he's not trying to catch up anytime soon.

The British musician makes the kind of swinging, uptown blues-informed R&B that was heard on the radio during the Kennedy administration. With People Gonna Talk, Hunter's latest and third album, the former railway worker from Colchester, England, is poised for a mainstream American crossover.

Since its March release, the CD, the singer-songwriter's American debut, has garnered strong buzz. Rolling Stone said the album is a "treat not to miss." Pop legend and Hunter's former boss Van Morrison has said, "James is one of the best voices and best-kept secrets in British R&B and soul." Comparisons to such greats as Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke have peppered several reviews in the international music press. "I'm extremely flattered," says Hunter, 43. His voice is nearly drowned out by city noises as he walks around Manhattan, calling from his cell phone. "To be compared to people you've admired for so long, you know, is great. It's humbling too, I guess."

Hunter, who plays Rams Head Tavern on Saturday night, is unabashed in his musical focus to re-create urban music of the late '50s and early '60s. If it weren't for the balanced, pristine quality of the recording, People Gonna Talk sounds as if it could have been made circa 1960 - replete with punchy horns and twisting-the-night-away rhythms.

"It was more unconsciously that I absorbed the music," Hunter says. "This stuff is the only kind of music that drew my attention."

As a boy, the performer was turned on to the buoyant sounds of late '50s R&B by his hip grandmother.

"She had a Jackie Wilson record hidden among Frankie Laine albums," Hunter recalls with a throaty chuckle. "It was `Reet Petite' and a huge hit in England. Grandma was more into rock 'n' roll than her sons, my uncles. They were jazzers."

But Hunter, a mostly self-taught guitarist, wouldn't seriously pursue music until he was well into his 20s and tired of working on the railroad.

"I was a railway worker for seven years," he says, "and I saw a lot of older men doing work that was killing me. So I said I'm going to do music and have fun with it. I never took it too seriously."

For years, he played clubs around England and eventually released two retro soul albums there. Hunter also toured as a backup singer for Morrison. It was during that time he met Steven Erdman, president of Go Records, the artist's label. After signing a deal, Hunter went to work on what turned out to be People Gonna Talk. He recorded the set in London's Toe Rag Studios, known for its vintage '60s equipment and old-fashioned recording techniques. The album was released in the United States by Rounder Records, a large independent label whose roster includes multi-Grammy winner Alison Krauss.

At just 41 minutes, People Gonna Talk is short but leaves an immediate impression. Smooth with an appealing rasp at the end of his phrases, Hunter is a charming vocalist. But he sounds closer to Boz Scaggs than to any of the soul immortals mentioned in his reviews. Though the album is tightly produced and never feels contrived in its homage to the past, Hunter's lyrics at times slip into lame territory. ("All my love belongs to you/If I had money baby, you could have it too.") And he doesn't display much of a worldview as the songs generally extol simplistic, love-you-till-the-end-of-time sentiments. He excels, though, on the saltier, more blues-suffused numbers such as the twangy "No Smoke Without Fire."

"I think me songwriting is going to develop its own way," says the heavily accented Hunter, who divides his time between homes in London and New York City. "I never felt the need to find me own path. I'll just broaden me subject matter, but I'm not sure how broad it will get."

He doesn't want to limit his energies to music.

"If I extend myself, it may be in another field, maybe cinematography," the artist says. "I don't totally think of the music as a genre, just a style that's grown on me. It's just the music that I loved, and I wanted to create that sound. I think there's space for it. Time will tell."

See James Hunter at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, Saturday night at 10. Tickets are $23.50. For more information, visit ramsheadtavern.com or call 410-268-4545.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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