Is there anyone in the world who looks happier to be singing the blues than James Hunter?
It was fair to wonder as much during the opening date of a winter U.S. swing for The James Hunter Six, and a performance that suffered not one bit from a sparse weeknight crowd. Hunter, a convincing and charismatic belter and balladeer, was too busy keeping the mood light and energy high to possibly be deterred by such a thing.
The retro-leaning R&B group — with two saxophonists, a drummer, stand-up bassist and piano/organ player backing Hunter, who played electric guitar throughout — was effusive and efficient, packing an ultra-tight 21 songs into about 80 minutes. And though the performance was impressive across the board, Hunter’s enthusiasm might have been most striking.
There were his constant smiles, many of which were playful ones directed at audience members in midsong; his good humor, as when the Englishman responded to an audience member’s written song request by telling her, “You misspelled ‘wanker,’ ”; and the way he’d excitedly call out songs to the group away from the microphone after peering down at his list, making sure to dial the tempo all the way up with cracklers (including “Free Your Mind (While You Still Got Time),” “Don’t Let Your Pride Take You For a Ride” and an incredibly fun romp through Larry Williams’ “Bony Moronie”) after slower numbers such as the tender, sax-driven “I Don’t Wanna Be Without You.”
(On the subject of energy and effort, a hat tip is due the saxophonists at stage left who often swayed in tandem; their playing was even better than their choreography, though, as when they carried the melody on “(Baby) Hold On.”)
An early, note-perfect rendering of “Whatever It Takes,” the title track from the band’s 2018 album, was a definite highlight, but the smoldering “Don’t Do Me No Favours” late in the set represented the evening’s high point. With a big, swinging groove, it afforded everyone a chance to stretch out, as Hunter did with one of his typically spirited if slightly jagged bursts on guitar. It was one of many moments when The James Hunter Six were clearly happy to be here and a joy to behold.
Openers Benny Trokan and the Bell Guarde gained momentum as they chugged through 40-minute set that strongly hinted at ’60s guitar-pop influences. It was not all that surprising, then, that they closed with an earnest cover of “Sometimes” by Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Just before that was their own “Too Far Gone,” full of prominent hooks and jangly guitars. Trokan introduced the song by emphasizing that it was the A-side of his recent 7-inch single, and he lamented that he had only brought four copies to sell at the venue. If there is any justice, he’ll eventually move quite a few more.
— By George Henn
The James Hunter Six’s U.S. winter tour continues through Feb. 7; the band begins a spring run April 11 in Houston.