For the vintage petrol head, there’s nothing better than watching classic motors being driven hard as they were meant to be, and for the lover of 50s and 60s sounds, it’s a treat to hear original numbers in an authentic style, so when the two come together with one of your favourite rock’n’roll DJs sandwiched in between, it’s time to head for wherever that’s happening – and when the ‘wherever’ is Santa Pod, well…
Santa Pod’s a magical place in its own right. Operated as a USAAF bomber airfield in the Second World War, and closed in 1961 after an ignominious post-War role as a storage depot for sandbags, the main runway was acquired by a group of drag racing enthusiasts and opened as Santa Pod in 1966. The beauty of the place is that there’s not much more there now: there’s the strip, of course, and that rightly gets every attention lavished on it, starting and finishing gantries at either end with the all-important timing gear, a big grass bank on one side of the track, and a seating stand at the other, and a bunch of buildings around the edge that wouldn’t look out of place on a 1960s Scalextric set.
But it’s what happens on the track that matters, and we were there for the Vintage Hot Rod Association Nationals – a weekend of pre-1963 classics, all ‘rodded’ to some extent in just the same way as hot rodders of the late 50s and early 60s would have done. These are the kind of cars you’d see on the ‘chicken run’ in some 50s juvenile delinquent movie, barrelling down the river bed in an outlaw race, but brought together with a good deal of deft but unobtrusive organisation to give drivers, spectators and machinery alike a good day out. The pits are wonderfully informal, and it’s great to be able to wander around meeting at close quarters the cars and drivers you’re about to see hurtling down the strip, and see them again afterwards as they either celebrate a few fractions of a second knocked of a run time, curse a muffed missed gear change or – worse – stare ruefully at an engine that’s going to need another year’s worth of evenings to get back on line. Saddest moment was watching a genuine 50s hot rod, lovingly restored to match photos from its heyday half a century ago, swerve and disappear in a cloud of oily smoke midway through a run – just the time it took for the stewards to return the track to a safe running condition spoke volumes. Fortunately, there were many more moments of pure 4-Star leaded joy. Favourites for us were the pre-’34 cars – the kind of thing genuine 50s rodders would have bought cheap, stripped of their fenders and engine covers, chopped the roof, and set to work installing the best engine weekends of chores could fund. These things aren’t going to break any Top Gear style stats, but an 80 year-old chassis crossing the line at over 90 mph after 13 seconds of hard acceleration is something to relish. Full petrol head reports are at the VHRA’s excellent website along with photos from those lucky enough to have a photo pass for the strip itself. Complementing the VHRA’s track days are their Pendine Sands meets, following in the footsteps of land speed record chasers from the 1920s onwards, and reflecting the British equivalent of the classic Bonneville Salt Flats hot rod meets.
A quick freshen up at the nearby Aviator Hotel at Sywell Aerodrome, itself an art deco jewel, saw us back at Santa Pod for the evening’s entertainment, ushered in with some storming rock’n’roll on vinyl by DJs Little Carl and Steve ‘Stack-O-Wax’ and featuring a band which, when we first heard them on radio, we’d assumed was an early 60s soul outfit that had somehow escaped our attention and were amazed to find were not only contemporary but thoroughly British – the James Hunter Six. I’ve written about them before, but it bears repeating if you’ve not encountered them – James Hunter’s been around the scene for quite a while; indeed, he’s had a whole previous career under the moniker of Howlin’ Wilf (no secret as to who his influences were, then) with his band, the Vee-Jays that lasted from the mid-80s until the late 90s when he found himself on the busking circuit. The James Hunter Six came together in 2006, breaking onto the scene with a debut album ‘People Gonna Talk’. Since then, he’s built a steady following with a varied round of tours and performances, and two follow-up albums, ‘The Hard Way’ and ‘Minute by Minute’. ‘Hold On!’ marks his move to Daptone Records – and if you’re on Daptone, you’ve gotta be good.
And he doesn’t disappoint. It’s a voice that spans the bluesiness of Ray Charles, the flourishes of Jackie Wilson, the earthiness of James Brown and the smoothness of Sam Cooke, with a healthy layer of Essex-boy humour and the air of a young Keith Allen. Hunter himself is a master of the understated but killer guitar break, delivered on a neat little instrument whose battered appearance and sound through a soft-braided lead into an original Vox amp has the edge of a Chuck Berry solo. The rest of the Six are masters of their craft, too – not a note wasted, the confidence not to play when it wasn’t needed, but absolutely on the button when it was. The rhythm section is rock solid, with Jason Wilson doing everything a stand-up bass player should (and none of the attention-seeking stuff he shouldn’t), and Jonathan Lee providing the varied and syncopated drum beat that originally caught our ears. The keyboard player – by far the youngest of the outfit (and I’m not sure it was the Andrew Kingslow listed on the band’s website) – just captures that 60s organ sound perfectly. And as for the horns – Lee Bandau on baritone sax and Damian Hand on tenor – they’re almost a second percussion section the way they punch in the sparing soul beat, but both have the skill to take on the lyrical solo, too. And they move with the studied insouciance that hallmarked the bands we watch so avidly from the past.
I won’t try to recount the playlist, except to say that it contained everything we liked from the most recent album, comprised predominantly, and maybe all, original material, and switched seamlessly from driving beat to slower numbers. Often the greatest compliment you can pay a band is that they sound just like their studio recordings when they’re playing live. Not so the James Hunter Six – they’re even better (even when there’s an annoying bloke running around at the front trying to take their pictures!).
This article first appeared on line in the Vintage News.