It all started a few months ago when we were rooting in the basement of a London charity shop and a tune came on the radio. Both of us pricked up our ears – an early Ray Charles record we didn’t recognise perhaps? Or some other early 60s soul singer that had escaped our attention? Fortunately, the presenter waited until after the record to announce it – the James Hunter Six, and ‘Hold On’. Time to get home and start googling, and find out that this is not only a contemporary outfit, but a British one, and about to go on tour to promote a new album on Daptone Records (another good sign – you don’t get onto Daptone unless you’ve got class).
And so to the O2 Institute at Birmingham, with the new album taking a rest from the CD player only to freshen up our ears for the evening. A promising support band in Harry Jordan, a local lass singing rockabilly-influenced numbers, backed by drums and a solid stand-up bass – see her Facebook Page which is regularly updated. A fairly mature crowd (I don’t think we spotted anyone under thirty) which meant we could hold a spot right by the stage. But first a bit of history. 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; we haven’t got hold of the previous albums yet, but repeated plays of the new one had created quite an expectation.
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 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 new 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! You can find more information on the band and their future programme of gigs on their excellent website and the accompanying Facebook Page.
And so to Saturday morning, and an early start to appear on Radio Gloucestershire to plug that day’s Vintage Fair in Tewkesbury and our follow up record hop in the evening. I’ve done enough radio interviews before in a professional capacity, and I’ve even been down to the Gloucester studios before in character to publicise a theatre show, but I’ve never appeared in my MidCentury Chap aka King of the Rocket Men guise before. Fortunately, the morning presenter, Faye Hatcher, hit the right note by playing Johnny B Goode as the run-up to the interview, and listened tolerantly while I banged on about the joys of vinyl, confessed to my digital DJ sins, and mercilessly promoted the day’s events. I was immensely flattered that she’d read this blog, too, and brought up my Nan’s 15 minutes of fame as Cliff Richard’s dry cleaning lady – very apt given that my Nan had spent her earlier youth about a quarter of a mile from where we were broadcasting.
The Vintage Fair itself goes from strength to strength under the enthusiastic drive of Shelby Powell and her team. Tewkesbury’s Watson Hall was packed with stalls selling a wide variety of original and reproduction items and, as ever, the prices were a good deal more reasonable than you’d find at many similar events. With a group of regular traders keen to return each time, Shelby’s been turning her energies to all the bits round the edge, and the programme of events throughout the day just grows and grows. With The Queen turning 90 that week, we had a bit of a Royal reign theme, with a look-a-like visitor, singers covering the 40s, 50s and 60s, and jive dancing demonstration. Outside, a row of classic cars lined the kerb, while a red London Routemaster somewhat incongruously plied the streets of this medieval Cotswold market town.
Come the evening, and Rob McElvanney, relishing in his new title of ‘Mr Swing’ (sorry, Rob, but I couldn’t be the only one with a DJ moniker!) joined me behind the sound system kindly lent, as always, by Two Rivers Studio, to keep up a steady flow of great 40s and 50s tunes. A partisan crowd – made up mostly of Rob’s fanatic swing dance colleagues, but with a smattering of enthusiastic locals – kept the newly-refurbished original 1950s sprung dance floor busy and in so doing helped us raise £118 for Cancer Research. Not a bad result for a night of playing your favourite records VERY LOUDLY. Hopefully, there’ll be another Vintage Fair along before too long when we’ll be taking advantage of access to the Hall in the evening for another go at that floor.