Who says retro musicians can't sound fresh and new? James Hunter certainly does. None of the elements from his new CD, aptly titled People Gonna Talk, would have sounded out of place on the radio in 1965, but there's an appealingly novel air to all of them. Take the title track, for example. It sounds like Sam Cooke or Freddy Fender fronting the Skatalites, a lost Rosetta stone of a track that would have defined the relationship between American R&B and Jamaican ska had it come out 45 years ago instead of this year. While every rapper since Run-DMC has bitten hard on the post-"Funky Drummer," early-'70s James Brown sound, relatively few musicians of any genre have resurrected the taut proto-funk of Brown's "Out of Sight" as Hunter does here with "No Smoke Without Fire" and "Don't Come Back." And blooze hacks without number have aped and watered down Albert King's stripped-down band and massive solos, while far too few have brought back the intricate gospel-tinged blues of Otis Rush, Duke-Peacock Bobby Bland and Magic Sam. Hunter does, and comes up with "Watch and Chain," a track Duke-Peacock's genius bandleader Joe Scott would have been proud to call his own.
To call Hunter's music "blue-eyed soul" does him a disservice, as the genre today too often implies schlocky cheesemeisters like Michael Bolton. Like Cooke, Hunter never gives in to faux-macho overemoting -- instead, his dulcet tenor glides hawklike on warm updrafts of chunky organ, balmy saxes, choogling bass, crisp snare drums and his own tastefully played hollow-body guitar -- but he's also capable of gruff, sanctified shouting.
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Mark it down -- if you love roots music and you don't go to this show, you'll be kicking yourself in a year or two, just as if you missed Norah Jones at Numbers and Los Lonely Boys at the Satellite or the Continental. The man Van Morrison called one of Britain's best-kept secrets won't be a secret for much longer.