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Willie Nelson + James Hunter
Hammersmith Apollo, 13 May 2008
Review Sharnalee Foster
James Hunter may not have been the headliner, but it felt good to see the band perform in this old-style theatre, with its history of big names, alongside country music legend, Willie Nelson - the latest in a long line of highly respected artists that James Hunter has toured with in recent years – Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Buddy Guy, Van Morrison and Bryan Adams, to name but a few.
Bang on time, Hunter and his band came on stage, looking smart in their suits, if slightly apologetic. They were, however, greeted by noisy cheering from various parts of the auditorium, revealing a healthy contingent of fans amongst the crowd. It can’t have been easy to begin playing to a half-empty hall of country fans, but the band launched headlong into “Talking ‘Bout My Love”, displaying James’ trademark frenzied guitar playing and the tight working of the two saxophones from the start. As seats filled, the gradual warming of the audience to the band’s style was tangible. Each song met with increasing applause and whoops of appreciation, and James’ little jokes and self-effacing quips served to melt the crowd still further.
“No Smoke Without Fire”, also from the Grammy nominated “People Gonna Talk” album of 2006, was played to its full funk value with impressive solos from the saxophone duo and the keyboards. This was followed by the now familiar cover of The Five Royales’ “Baby Don’t Do It”; a glorious highlight to the show, allowing the band to truly let rip, with James’ raucous vocals and manic guitar riffs really coming to the fore. By contrast, their sensitive rendition of Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought Of You”, recorded on James Hunter’s first solo album, “Believe What I Say”, showed just how smooth and mellow these guys can be. James’ meaningful vocal with its laid back phrasing, combined with another heady solo from Damian, actually left the audience in silent awe for a second or two before the applause resounded.
Then, by Hunter’s own admission, came a blatant plug for the new album, “The Hard Way”, released a few weeks ago in the UK. The first new track performed was my personal favourite, “Hand It Over”, with its gentle Latin rhythm and the sense of wistful longing. The pace was then radically stepped up in another newly recorded track, “Don’t Do Me No Favours”, which has been a regular part of the live set for a while, giving the band the opportunity to show off their expertise with exhilarating drive and energy. This was followed by another change of mood with “Carina”, a softly sweet, dreamy ballad, with an upbeat ska feel that suits James Hunter’s sound so well.
All too soon, the last song was being introduced. “We’ll leave you now to enjoy Willie…Way-hey!” said James. By the time the rockin’ “Jacqueline”, a song reminiscent of early Jackie Wilson, was under way, the audience was well and truly wound up, with several heads bobbing up and down despite the seating restrictions. I think plenty of Willie Nelson’s fans would have happily listened to more, judging by the crowd clamouring to get a signed copy of the CD afterwards. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more than a few conversions to the Hunter cause tonight.
Being a novice as far as country music is concerned, I really wasn’t sure what to expect when music legend, Willie Nelson, appeared on stage, to much rapturous applause, beneath a huge Texas flag. Others will no doubt give a much more knowledgeable account of his performance, but I will say that I was duly impressed by this music veteran’s ability to touch the audience with his music. His voice showed real depth of feeling, in such famous tracks (familiar even to me!) as “Crazy”, “Always On My Mind”, and “Georgia On My Mind”, which also hinted at the breadth of his prolific songwriting career.
I found his guitar-playing remarkably energetic and light-fingered, and delighted in his wonderful sense of humour, in his rare comments between numbers and in songs, such as “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” and “The Bob Song”, both from his latest album, “Moment of Forever”. I was also pleasantly surprised at the range of material performed. Of course, there was plenty of out-and-out country as you’d expect, as in Nelson’s traditional opening number, “Whiskey River”, and in “Louisiana”, but “Takin’ On Water” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” were positively funky, “I’ll Fly Away” had a real gospel feel and “Little Sister Bobbie” provided some great boogie-woogie on piano.
Several red bandanas later – they were flung out with gay abandon to a grateful audience - Willie Nelson said goodbye to all his fans. Despite plenty of enthusiastic calls, there was no encore, which was perhaps a disappointment to many. Nevertheless, it couldn’t be denied that he had covered a huge amount of material, spanning an impressively long career. Little time had been wasted on unnecessary words. The music did the talking, and there’d been a lot to say.