Anyone fortunate enough to have caught one of the past James Hunter Six shows in Houston already knows what this artist brings to the table. He is the real deal of old-school R&B; with a voice like the ones they just don’t make anymore and the guitar licks to match. James Hunter and his band will be kicking off their tour at the Heights Theater this month, coming all the way from Brighton England.
The James Hunter Six is the first English act to be signed to the New York-based label Daptone Records. This doesn’t mean he’s new on the block. Hunter has been making music and honing his skills since he was a young man busking on the streets of London. Since then, he has put out 11 albums as the James Hunter Six and his first band, Howlin’ Wilf and the Vee-Jays. Along the way Hunter has established a long friendship with Van Morrison, been nominated for a Grammy and toured all over the world.
When asked if he reflects on the past Hunter says, “I don’t need to look back at the ups and downs because the ups and downs haven’t stopped really. I’m always still in the middle of that. For example, we’ve never quite broken through the way we want to but we’re always on the edge of something almost happening. In a way I wonder if it hasn’t been good for us because it kept us a little bit hungry.”
His new artistic home also represented the late, great soul legends Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. Daptone works hard to promote artists who might not fit into a box at other record labels. For R&B and Soul fans, Daptone Records is essential in producing authentic acts.
Hunter clearly feels comfortable there, “Makes a change to be with a label that understands where you’re coming from musically. Other labels if they don’t quite hit their sales target they seem to try to revolutionize the whole thing. A lot of them don’t know, all they know is the figures sort of thing, but with the people at Daptone you feel they’re actually interested in music, which is rarer than you’d think.”
When asked about how he feels his genre might evolve with time the artist says, “I never give it much thought you know. I don’t care if it turns into a huge scene or not, but it’d be interesting to see if it did.” He adds, “I never felt like part of a movement, but I get a kick out of the idea that I might be.”
Hunter’s voice is distinctive in his ability to easily go from high and smooth to deep and grizzly. The singer describes it with humor, “That’s indecision on my part. One minute I’m trying to be Jerry Butler and the next minute I’m trying to be Bobby Womack, and they couldn’t be more different.” He jokes, “I’d probably have a voice that sounded like bacon frying even if I didn’t smoke.”
He also attributes his guitar style to years of trying to imitate the artists he admires, “It sort of came out as an attempt to steal various established players styles and settling for something that came out as an amalgam of all those different people.” He explains, ”You try to copy a load of people, and obviously you fall short, but then it doesn’t matter because you end up with something of your own in it.”
Hunter jokes, “It’s the other stuff I do; like kicking the guitar through me hands, putting it on the floor and talking to it like a ventriloquist dummy, all the stuff that covers up me limitations on the actual instrument.”
Hunter reminisced about the artists he grew up listening to as a young man and notes the American influences on British R&B, “The British do have this tradition of rifling through America’s dustbin, polishing it up again, then presenting it back to America, and like me self, pretending it’s something new.” He chuckles, “There’s a few of us that have done that.” Hunter adds, “I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, everything is inspired by something.”
Though Hunter’s speaking voice is clearly marked by his thick accent, it disappears while crooning. “Obviously you can’t sing the stuff I do in this idiom. With an English accent you would sound horrible! I like the contrast of, you sing it one way and then you announce it another. It does throw people a bit, but if you did it the other way that would be peculiar.”
His last album, Whatever it Takes, was greatly inspired by his American wife, Jessie Hunter and the challenges in getting her residency to be able to live in Brighton with her husband. “She inspired a good handful of the songs on the last album and of course married life going on a bit longer, I’ve written some more still with her in mind. One is called, ‘How long are you gonna be in that bathroom?’” jokes the singer.
“We are still newlyweds really.” says Hunter. “It’s been marvelous and she helps me out on the road. I can’t go out without her, I need my grownup with me.” Jessie even lent her eyes behind the camera of an old 6 mm Bolex for the official video to “I Don’t Want to be Without You.”
This tour will take The James Hunter Six from Texas to Chicago, where he will be sharing the stage with his long time pal Van Morrison, “That should be fun, I haven’t seen him for a while. I look forward to that because every time I do a gig with him I get a free harmonica out of it!”
The James Hunter Six recently brought onboard some fresh talent to the backing band, mostly connected by Daptone Records' network of musicians. “We’ve had what you’d call a cabinet reshuffle as of late. We’ve got some new blood. They are all Yanks, which saves on airfare. Sorry I shouldn’t say Yankees!” he laughs.
His Houston show will feature songs from previous albums and some from his untitled new release. “We just finished another album on Daptones, so that should be coming out within the next few months. I’m possibly gonna name it after one of the songs, because I’m so bad at thinking up album titles.” He adds with his brand of British humor, “The titles aren’t really that good actually, but the songs are brilliant so we might think of something else.”
James Hunter Six will be performing with The Greyhounds Thursday, April 11 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th, doors at 7 p.m. $28-41, VIP tables $214.