November 2006

Conversation with the Blues
Michael Pickett opening for James Hunter
Presented by Gary Topp
November 15, 2006 Lula Lounge Toronto
As good as it gets
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Roger Humbert
“As good as it gets,” is how Gary Topp introduced the quintessential Toronto bluesman Michael Pickett to open the second show of a spectacular doubleheader with U.K. soul sensation James Hunter; in front of two packed and hugely enthusiastic crowds at Lula Lounge. That said it all, both in terms of the individual artists and musical pairing. The delta blues and soul/R&B double was a journey right through the heart of American roots music, from their early days to their modern meaning.
Michael Pickett

I was struck immediately by Pickett’s uncanny resemblance to Democratic political strategist James Carville. Tonight he was cast perfectly in the role of the sage, right down to his road-worn and incredibly resonant hollow-body guitar. Sure enough, he took notice of my presence with a notebook at the table in front and said “We have a member of the press here,” which in front of such a busy room was cause for crimson turning. “Write that down,” he continued in his thunderous and gravelly voice. “The great thing about the press is that they’ll print whatever you say.” Or in this case, play.

It was the perfect thematic and metaphoric segue into his first song which rang out, “The President’s up in the White House / bombs dropping down like showers / CNN’s got that covered / no matter what I do, that image burnin’ in my mind.” Nothing captures the outrage of these wag-the-dog times like slow burning Delta blues.

Michael Pickett

The next offering had an Eric Clapton Tears in Heaven guitar sound, with a spoken-word rhythm to the lyrics. It was then time for the troubadour to play a song about a murder, with the chorus “Frankie Johnson needs killin’, I’m wearin’ a wicked grin.” Pickett completed the effect by clutching his guitar as though it were a weapon at the end of the tune. The blues stream of consciousness continued with the following tune’s hook of “If you lose your money, please don’t lose your mind.”

His music moves effortlessly between guitar, harmonica, and song — very reminiscent of Neil Young with more of a pure blues spirit. He engaged the audience in a call-and-response, the crowd easing into a rhythmic clap along with Pickett’s harp and vocals that to me represented an entirely new sound of blues beat boxing.

The song was, I believe, entitled “Can’t Find My Way Home”. It featured the timeless line “All I got’s this ol’ guitar and a real good pair of walkin’ shoes.” One gets the feeling that’s more than enough for Michael Pickett.

James Hunter

James Hunter and his six-piece band took the Lula stage in matching black sports coats, ready to rock their second capacity crowd of the night. This was already one of the most genuinely happy live music crowds I could recall from Toronto.

Hunter’s authentic showmanship was in full evidence from the first song, as he laid down a washboard-style slap on his guitar. He makes it clear that he is in the house to make people dance, hopping and skipping around the stage with the grace of a trained dancer. The sax combo — Derek Huston on tenor and Craig Dreyer on the baritone sax — laid down a rock melody without wasting a note, in perfect time and rhythm.

Next up was a 12-bar based tune with a delicious Wurlitzer overlay from Jared Samuel, a marvelous keyboard player who plays with effortless flair, chewing gum all the while. Noticing my journalistic endeavours, one of the women who was joyously dancing approached and commented, “Delicious, intoxicating, drives the women mad”. “Tantalizing groove, if only everyone could get over their own importance and just groove,” she continued.

Hunter is an incredibly rangeful songwriter and vocalist, his pipes turning out equally natural-sounding sandpaper blues, sweet and soothing soul ballads, fiery rock & roll and most notably on the next song, "Riot in My Heart", the classic guttural scream of the great funk bandleaders like James Brown and Buddy. These musical personae flow in and out of each other seamlessly, often within the same song. His guitar work is a bit loose at times, and I would like to see him let this particular band off the leash with some more improvisation and jam.

Slowly but surely, the dance floor filled up over the course of the show. It was particularly touching to see one twenty- or thirty-something couple dancing with a movement and mutual expression one could picture in their parents. No image conveyed the audience experience of James Hunter’s music better. Another of those signature moments was seeing the show’s hostess, longtime Toronto music sage Erella Ganon, in her element during the band’s rendition of the Jackie Wilson classic "Lonely Teardrop".

The album’s title track, "People Gonna Talk", offered up a deliciously danceable ska beat. "I’ll Walk Away" was Hunter’s authentically-conveyed “attempt at country & western”, revealing another dynamic in his vast spectrum of American soul & roots music sensibilities — the authentic delivery of which makes one amazed at the fact that he is from Colchester, England.

James Hunter

The encore started without Hunter, a gorgeous jazzy swing number. The singer took the stage about four minutes in, smiling broadly while he soaked in his band’s moment in the sun, and broke into "All Through Cryin’". He played while lying on the floor. He plucked with his teeth. At the end of a doubleheader, James Hunter was still letting it all hang out, seeming as though he could play forever and not get tired. The audience response to the band’s call was so much louder and instinctive than it usually is from notoriously tame Toronto crowds.

Outside Lula after the show, I overheard one man saying, “Boy, I got my 22 bucks worth tonight!” to his friend. If the value of a James Hunter show is to put one back in touch with the soul of music, that’s a small price to pay.

The band
James Hunter – guitar, vocals
Derek Huston – tenor sax
Craig Dreyer – baritone sax
Jared Samuel – keys
David Mason – drums
Rene Hart – acoustic bass
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We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
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