Charlie Hunter Quartet

[6 April 2009]

By Tyler Wilcox

Let’s get this out of the way right here at the beginning: Charlie Hunter is kind of ridiculous. His instrument of choice is a customized eight-string guitar that allows him to play lead and bass simultaneously—the sort of thing that just doesn’t make sense, even when you’re watching him do it just a few feet away from you. To call him a guitar hero isn’t quite right—the guy is more of a guitar superhero. His technique is the sort of thing that makes pro guitarists weep, and makes bass players fear for their livelihoods. But honestly, no one should be worried. As my guitarist friend put it after Hunter’s show, “he’s pretty much the only guy in the universe who can do what he does.”

Of course, we can all agree that virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake is genuinely boring. If every Charlie Hunter performance was focused on the fact that, like, wow, man, that guy can play bass and lead at the same time, I doubt he’d be as successful as he is. It appears Hunter is well aware of this. His Boulder Theater show was not so much about the crowd bowing down to his insane talents as it was about Hunter and his band bowing down to some monstrous grooves. The goofy grin plastered across the guitarist’s face throughout the 80-minute set was evidence enough that he doesn’t get off on his own technique, but rather, on his band’s locked-in interplay, the skittering beats of his phenomenal drummer, Eric Kalb, and overall funkiness. The Boulder Theater’s management had put out seats for the audience, but they shouldn’t have bothered. Hunter and his band were playing dance music, plain and simple.

cover art

Charlie Hunter

Baboon Strength

(Spire Artist; US: 8 Sep 2008)

Though Hunter has played more straightforward jazz in the past, his set this time around was closer to a gospel-inflected soul revue more than anything else. This was thanks to trumpeter Eric Biondo (who has played with Antibalas) and baritone saxophonist Cheme (who has appeared on a bunch of records released by the neo-soul Daptone label, including some by the great Sharon Jones), who accompanied Hunter throughout the night. The brass duo didn’t get a lot of chances to show off their chops—on occasion they were reduced to shuffling in silence as Hunter and Kalb traded improvisatory licks with one another. But they provided solid support for these flights of fancy, playing classic call-and-response parts that perfectly grounded Hunter’s wilder musical moments. And when Cheme did step up to the mic for a solo, he tore through an intense, earthy series of riffs that had Hunter, happy to comp along behind him, bobbing his head in wonderment. And I get the feeling Hunter is probably a hard guy to impress, musically speaking.

If there was a complaint to be made about the set at the Boulder Theater, it was that the whole thing felt almost a little too one-note, a little too monochromatic in the group’s single-minded pursuit of the perfect jam. It might’ve helped if Hunter had thrown in a Monk tune or something slightly more ballad-y, just to shake things up. The audience got a healthy dose of what Hunter is capable of this evening, but it was, in truth, only a glimpse of the full range of his skills as a musician. Clearly, at this point in his career, the guitarist’s head is more with groove and rhythm than it is with melody and song form. Right now, the guy just wants to party. And when he and his band are having as much fun as they were onstage, who can really blame him?

The night closed with the welcome addition of two more horn players from the opening band Superconductor blowing on blues changes. Things got progressively looser and rangier from there. But since this was a party, isn’t that the right direction to go in?

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