James Hunter: An Education from Van Morrison and Many More
Touring for years as Van Morrison’s back-up singer, James Hunter saw many explosive performances by the Irish musical legend. He tells me he learned more, though, from Morrison in just minutes in a recording studio as he and a host of musicians recorded his debut album …Believe What I Say.
“I don’t think I picked up as much from Van while on the road as I did in the 20 minutes he spent in the studio with us in 1996, when we recorded two Bobby Bland songs. His mic technique enabled him to keep his loud notes on the same level as his quieter ones. The engineer described him afterwards as having ‘a built-in compressor.’ I’ve tried to emulate this ever since.”
Hunter has come a long way since that debut album and, with his band, the James Hunter Six, will be releasing Hold On!, his fourth album, on Feb. 5. It will be the British blue-eyed soul singer’s first album on Daptone Records.
“From the driving stompers to the bubbling rumbas,” according to Hunter’s website, “the record drips with the rawness and feeling that Daptone fans have become accustomed to and cuts straight to the soul of the man who James Hunter fans have come to love.”
Though Hunter’s 2006 album People Gonna Talk and his 2008 album The Hard Way vaulted to No. 1 on the Billboard blues chart, some critics said that Hunter’s last album, 2013’s Minute by Minute, is the best one in his catalog. It was Hunter’s first album recorded in the USA and the debut album of the James Hunter Six, which includes saxophonists Lee Badau and Damian Hand, keyboardists Kyle Koehler and Andrew Kingslow, drummer Jonathan Lee and bassist Jason Wilson.
“Minute by Minute stands out for me as having the most vivid and three-dimensional sound we’ve captured on record so far,” Hunter tells me. “This is largely due to Gabe Roth’s production. He has a way of placing the mics to catch the full spectrum of each instrument’s sound, and he knows how to get their respective frequencies out of each other’s way so that everything sounds like it’s out in front. It might also be because we got Jonathan Lee to whack the drums a bit harder. I don’t know if I’d try to estimate my own record in terms of its importance. I just dig it, that’s all!”
Hunter also dug a performance by Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin at an English music festival in the 1990s and says it was the most influential concert he has attended.
“Ernest Ranglin is the one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard, and his band played jazzy material with a Caribbean feel that contrasted nicely with his intense guitar style. The gentle humor of his performance stayed with me as well, and I was reminded of this when I saw B.B. King somewhere in France.”
Hunter says the best concert he has attended, though, was a performance by a relatively unknown band, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, from Oakland, California. Live concerts of the band, which dresses in costumes and incorporates unconventional instruments in its act, have been described as performance art, experimental rock ’n’ roll, art rock, and heavy metal.
“A bunch of us went to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco to meet up with a mate, and we saw a band — if that term doesn’t sound dismissive — called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum,” Hunter recalls.
“It was a visual spectacle quite unlike anything I’d ever seen. Everyone in the band appeared to be covered in a layer of mud, and they all looked like Terry Gilliam in Life of Brian. They produced a raging cacophony — predominantly on classical stringed instruments — that was no less than captivating. Their performance was also an object lesson in not taking oneself too seriously.”