At some point in his 45 years, James Hunter must have assembled an impressive collection of soul records anchored by the works of Sam Cooke. Confidently, Hunter has positioned his own original music at the tail end of several soul eras — Cooke’s murder, James Brown’s last recordings before diving into funk, the Stax studio weeks after Otis Redding was killed — and used each as a starting point. It’s a valid throwback, as he demonstrated in his assured perf of his substantial material at the Troubadour; his ability to shift between the soft string-based arrangements on his new “The Hard Way” disc to a more rough-n-tumble, sax-based model drove home that point repeatedly on Tuesday night.
Touring in support of his second album since splitting from Van Morrison’s band, Hunter offered an 80-minute set dominated by “Hard Way” material. The influences, which don’t seem to mingle, were obvious and numerous. There’s Cooke (“Class Act,” “The Hard Way”); late ’60s Memphis (show opener “She’s Got a Way”); Ernest Ranglin-style reggae (“Carina”); Rosco Gordon (“Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”); and Hank Ballard (“Jacqueline”).
Vocally, he has assimilated — and kept in check — yelps and squeals from Brown and Ray Charles that lend his voice a greater fullness. Playing guitar for much of the night brought out blues flavorings in the music — there is definitely some Bobby “Blue” Bland in that collection of his — although his soloing skills pale in comparison to those of his two saxophonists and organist.
While both sides of the pond appear willing to accept the thrushes who embrace ’60s and early ’70s soul — Joss Stone to Amy Winehouse to Duffy — no British male artist has so enthusiastically hitched his wagon to the same era. Initial retail reports indicate he is still in the critical darling mode as his new disc, released by the Starbucks/Concord Hear Music label, has sold only 8,000 copies in three weeks.
Hunter will be an opening act for Chris Isaak this summer, including an Aug. 20 gig at New York’s Nokia Theater Times Square.