News Column

James Hunter Six headlines Sacramento Music Festival

May 23, 2013

YellowBrix

May 23--He's not trying to break your heart or revive the soul-and-R&B past.

He just wants you to dance.

That's the sentiment of 50-year-old British soul rocker James Hunter.

He'll tell you as much, conveyed with urgency and a thick working-class British accent. In any conversation with Hunter about his music, you quickly learn that he doesn't care to dissect his rhythm-and-blues style that harks back to the 1950s. He'd rather you just listen to it and move your feet.

"I don't really describe what we do," Hunter said via telephone from his U.K. home in the seaside town of Brighton. "I've never been able to give a good answer to that question, because I've no idea.

"It's like when people ask me, 'What can we expect when we see your show?' Well, I don't know, really. You take away what you expect to hear, probably."

Hunter is one of the headliners at the 2013 Sacramento Music Festival, which for the past few years has been looking to move beyond its Dixieland jazz past and attract a wider audience. (Other acts this year include guitar virtuoso Kenny Wayne Shepherd, modern bluesman John Lee Hooker Jr. and multiple-Grammy winners Los Lobos.) Hunter's band performs tonight at the festival's Firehouse Lot.

The James Hunter Six is touring in support of its recent release, "Minute by Minute." That CD was the group's first in five years and saw the band working with a new sound -- bigger, fuller, with more horn emphasis -- produced by Gabriel Roth, the co-founder of the noted indie funk and soul label Daptone Records.

The record seeks to live up to the band's 2006 release "People Gonna Talk," which put the band on the map and was nominated for a Grammy in the best traditional blues album category.

The Bee talked to Hunter about his musical upbringing, influences and, yes, what to expect to see at his upcoming shows.

I heard you were influenced a lot by your grandmother's record collection.

That's not true, really. It was probably the collection of a mate of mine (that) influenced me. But, really, there is no cut-and-dried story.

I also heard you grew up on an onion farm in Colchester (northeast of London). Is that true?

We did. I was 9 years old and we'd just come back from Australia. We'd emigrated there because of this cheap scheme where you could emigrate for about 10 quid.

That must have been an interesting place for a kid.

It was Western Australia, so there was a lot of open country. I think I'd go mad if I lived there now. But for a kid growing up it was all right, you know? After 2 1/2 years, we'd had enough and came back.

Anything interesting going on in Western Australia musically?

No, not that I remember. In fact, every time I think of my early childhood, all I remember is a lot of rubbish on the radio.

When did you first start playing the guitar?

At 14. My brother's mate sold me a guitar for 2 pounds. It was, basically, a cigar box with a bit of piano wire running through it.

So you're self-taught?

Yes. I take all the blame.

Were you in bands after that?

No, that was when I started learning the guitar. I learned a couple of chords off my brother, but I didn't play live or in front of anyone until 1983.

Were you influenced by anyone at the time?

I was influenced by (American blues and funk artist) Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

What do you like about him?

That he's an even greater singer than he is a guitarist -- at least for my money. He's one of my favorite singers. I think his singing and his guitar playing are very similar -- it kind of falls off the beat, you know? But it works. Some people say the same thing about Frank Sinatra singing.

How has the James Hunter Six evolved over time?

We've all grown together. We've practically learned to read each other's minds. We still have not learned to anticipate when one of us is going to piss the other off. Musically, we communicate really well. It has gotten to this state where some of the other guys know what I'm going to like more than I do.

So creating music is a communal effort?

It used to be me. I used to dictate everything, every night. Now, everybody chips something in.

"Minute by Minute" was your first release in five years. Why the long gap?

I'm just a slow writer. It was a Catch-22. We were so busy, I didn't have time to write anything. And then when all that fell off, I was busy trying to survive.

You write all the band's music?

I do. When it comes to arrangements, the other members have quite a hand in it. I come in with my arrangements ... and more often than not, the guys improve what I've given them.

What guitars do you use onstage?

I like Les Pauls.

So what can we expect when we see a James Hunter Six show?

It's noisy. You can jump about because that's what the music is there for. When people come out and see us, I tell them "Don't be too re- spectful of us because we're there to be danced to."

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. On Twitter @edwardortiz.THE JAMES HUNTER SIX

What: Sacramento Music Festival

When: 10:30 tonight (festival runs through Monday)

Where: Firehouse Lot, Old Sacramento, Sacramento

Tickets: $20-$39; $110 all-event festival pass

Information: (916) 444-2004; www.sacmusicfest.com

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(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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