James Hunter, with Allen Toussaint – The Hard Way (2008)

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Rock Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint brought me to James Hunter’s “The Hard Way,” produced by Liam Watson of the White Stripes and set for June 10 release on Hear Music.

But Hunter — a remarkably soulful presence in the style of Jackie Wilson, Van Morrison, Ray Charles and (primarily) Sam Cooke — kept me glued in front of the speakers.

He’s refreshingly retro, not in the sense of simply recalling the familiar but of taking those expectations to a new place.

Tightly edited solos, both on guitar and organ, and bright blasting horn arrangements illustrate a command of the depth and nuance found in many pre-rock chart toppers. Yet each song, rather than falling back on tried-and-true hits from the past, is instead an original composition.

That makes “The Hard Way,” cut at London’s Toe Rag Studios (where the White Stripes recorded “Elephant”), a signature breakthrough for an emerging British artist who first made waves as a sideman with Morrison and then as a leader in 2006 with the Grammy-nominated “People Gonna Talk.”

In many ways, despite their disparity in age, Hunter has much in common with Toussaint — another guy who spent decades working to become an overnight success. (Thus the title of this record.) Toussaint flew overseas only to find a performer in keeping with the ones he grew up around in Louisiana, making music live to capture its true nature.

Toussaint sits in at the piano and provides harmony vocals on the title track, sparks the rumba “Believe Me Baby,” then switches to electric piano on the groovy “‘Til The End.”

The two first met in 2006 at the Americana Music Association Awards, where Hunter appeared as a performer and nominee in the “New/Emerging Artist” category. Then, at the Grammys in 2007, Hunter and Toussaint reconnected — leaving with a promise to work together.

Along the way, Hunter has opened for Etta James, Boz Scaggs, Los Lonely Boys, and Aretha Franklin, while reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues chart. Even so, the Toussaint connection might just be his most sympathetic. After all, Hunter says: “He wrote every song I like.”

Listen closely, and you hear a similar facility for settling into the groove — for luxuriating in the natural ebb and flow of this music. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that Hunter was once known for a straight-ahead blues-based feel.

Hunter still retains his occasionally frenetic fretwork (something that strongly recalls the under-recognized stylings of Ike Turner, yet is brave enough to conclude with the delicate “Strange But True,” a first for Hunter with just vocals and guitar.

It shows how far he has come in polishing his work into an effortless-sounding and essentially timeless reinterpretation of the R&B aesthetic. Strange, but still true, Hunter is a genuine throwback with little of the kitsch typically associated with such things.

His path may indeed have been hard, but Hunter has learned to smooth the edges along the way. That makes loving this one easy.

 

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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