The James Hunter Six’s brand of soul makes use of harmonies that are simultaneously reminiscent of 1960s surf pop and Motown girl groups, but by no means are they bubblegum. Lead singer and guitarist James Hunter’s voice is more of a croon than a growl, and it adds a gruffness to the Six’s music that interrupts the analog smooth of golden oldies from materializing in their music. The result is a new, English spin on the classic soul and funk sound of a bygone era, managing to keep it alive outside of nostalgic roadside memorabilia and “good old days” Top 40 oldies radio stations. They are part of a body of evidence that classic soul music still has a pulse. Expect to feel that pulse through the walls of the Lobero Theatre, its only soul music concert scheduled for the rest of the year, starting at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 24, when The James Hunter Six make their way to Santa Barbara.
What is left of that era is imprinted on the Six’s instrumental flourishes on the saxophone, organ, and sometimes even harmonica, in addition to Hunter’s vocals. Some of the songs on the band’s newest release, Hold On!, have the band wearing the influence of ragtime piano on their sleeve, thanks to the talents of keyboard player Andrew Kingslow. In the recent resurgence of roots influences in mainstream rock music, say the blues-rock of The Black Keys or the gospel tinge of singer/songwriter Hozier, there’s been a shortage of songs that take on the loose energy of ragtime like The James Hunter Six. The album was also coproduced by Gabriel Roth, cofounder of Daptone Records, to which the Six are signed.
Roth has lent his talents to other Daptone artists, such as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, and the Budos Band. Much of the label’s repertoire consists of soul, funk, and afrobeat bands from New York City and the surrounding area. It possesses a purist ethos augmented by artists tempered by age and experience, proving that consistent hard work can sustain a career in a field often considered a young person’s game. The James Hunter Six is the only British band on the Daptone roster, but they sound so American they might as well have been making jukebox rotations since the mid-’50s.
Hunter himself has enjoyed a cult following since the mid-1990s, attracting high-profile fans such as Van Morrison, who sang background vocals on Hunter’s cover of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light” on the 1996 album …Believe What I Say. Hunter, who had previously been a regular in clubs around London as the bandleader of rock ’n’ blues outfit Howlin’ Wilf & The Vee-Jays, began touring with Morrison in 1994 as a backup singer and guitar player. His first great commercial success was 2006’s People Gonna Talk, which occupied the number one spot on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums chart and earned him a Grammy nod for Best Traditional Blues Album of the year. His inspired guitar playing and stellar backing musicians continue to thrill crowds and enamor critics from coast to coast, while writing a new chapter in a genre too often considered old news.
Sings Like Hell presents the James Hunter Six plays at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.