Saturday, February 10, 2018

Guitar Wizard Charlie Hunter Brings His World Class Trio to the Red Light Cafe in Midtown Atlanta

Charlie Hunter
On Tuesday night February 6, 2018, at Atlanta’s Red Light Café, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of guitarist Charlie Hunter and his trio. To see this seven-string guitarist in action in such an intimate setting as the Red Light is a real treat, and based on the sold out audience, I was not alone in my assessment. The Red Light is located on the eastside of Piedmont Park in the Amsterdam Walk section of Midtown. A storefront location with painted concrete block walls that are loosely adorned with funky local artwork gives this bare bones listening room a homey, comfortable vibe.  The venue features roots rock, folk, bluegrass, blues and occasionally comedy and burlesque nightly. To see a jazz artist of the caliber of Hunter and his trio mates at this venue is something special.

I have been fortunate to have seen the New Jersey native previously and he did not fail to surprise and delight with his touring trio on this occasion. Hunter has mastered a mind-blowing technique on his custom seven and eight string guitars where he plays bass on the upper strings and comps himself with chording or single note bursts almost simultaneously. If you don't see him actually do this with your own eyes you would not believe it is possible. The great guitarist Joe Pass would often accompany himself with a similar technique on a six-string guitar, but Hunter has taken the technique to a more rhythmically vibrant dimension with his custom seven string instrument. Hunter is a phenom and has recorded and played with the likes of rapper Mos Def, contemporary R & B artist D’Angelo, singer Norah Jones, rocker John Mayer as well as many contemporary jazz artists. He is also one of those musicians who seems never content to sit on his laurels, always searching for new avenues of musical expression.

This tour was originally billed to be a duo with Hunter and the Mexican songstress Silvana Estrada, who Hunter met while teaching a master class at the university in Mexico City. He was so impressed with her unique musicality that he stayed on and recorded an album of songs with her and drummer Carter McClean. According to the information on Hunter’s website, despite having an authentic sound that was born in her southern Mexican Jarocho tradition, the new immigration authorities in their infinite wisdom, determined that her music wasn’t sufficiently culturally unique enough to warrant a performing visa. This is unfortunately the state of affairs in our present- hostile to immigrants- political environment fostered by the present administration. 

With his tour pre-booked Hunter had to scramble and enlisted the percussionist Keito Ogawa of Snarky Puppy fame and the singer Lucy Woodward to join him for the North American tour. In talking to Ms. Woodward between sets, she got the call and the trio had to quickly come up with a suitable repertoire for the tour.

Keita Ogawa, Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward at the Red Light Cafe in Atlanta
The set started with a funky version of Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper” with just Mr. Hunter and Mr. Ogawa playing as a duo. The two feeding off each other in sympathetic response. Hunter’s facility on full display and Ogawa making a variety of sounds from a very unconventional looking drum set that used a dried gourd as his bass drum.

Keita Ogawa's Drumset complete with three toy pigs and a gourd bass drum
The duo did a slow, slithering blues written by Hunter “(Wish I Was) Already Paid and On My Way Home” and featured on his 2016 release cleverly titled Everybody Has A Plan Until they Get Punched in the Mouth. Hunter’s dexterity and technique on full display as he played the bass lines and ripped a gutsy solo using only his thumb and forefinger and a peculiar pickless-finger style.

The group introduced vocalist Lucy Woodward to the stage and they performed the Nina Simone classic “Plain Gold Earring.”  Woodward's pedigree includes back-up singing with Rod Stewart, Chaka Khan, Joe Cocker and Snarky Puppy. Born of English-American parents, Ms.  Woodward is an attractive, thirty-something with a sensuous voice that has elements of the chanteuse Shirley Bassey in it. Her bodacious smoky delivery also reminds me of a cross between Peggy Lee and Julie London. The group dynamic was smooth and joyful as Woodward added some vocal color to the music.

Ms. Woodward seemed to become more comfortable as the night went on, especially on blues like  “Walkin’ the Line” or “I Put a Spell on You” where her husky, breathy tone added a bit of  Janis Joplin-like rasp to full effect.  Hunter continued to astound with his steady rhythmic beat and his facile finger work. Ogawa added unique sounds to the mix from his treasure chest of percussive instruments.

One of the highlights of the evening, if just for the sheer originality of it all, was when Hunter and Woodward left the stage and Keita Ogawa performed an astonishing solo using three squeaky pig toys that he said he bought at Walmart. It claims on his website that the Japanese percussionist “…can virtually play any percussion instrument and musical style with fluency and unparalleled musicality.”  Click here to see  this brief cut and see if you don’t agree.

The band did a series of songs that featured Ms. Woodward’s fetching voice including Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” with a scorching solo by Hunter and Lucinda Williams “It’s Over But I Can’t Let Go” which featured some call and response between Ogawa and Woodward.

After a brief intermission- the audience given a chance to interact with the musicians and purchase some albums-the group restarted with a seething hot blues “I Don’t Know”  where Hunter played deftly on a wah pedal. Then proceeded on to  the Willie Dixon classic “Spoonful” where the guitarist had hints of Hendrix in his free flowing lines.

The set continued with “Dream,” “Making Whoopee,” and ended the evening with “I Go Insane.” The evening was a superlative event filled with funk, grit, blues, soul, jazz and swing. Mr. Hunter is a treasure of creativity, Mr. Ogawa a master of rhythm and Ms. Woodward a wonderful vocalist. The three musicians were incredible, and the crowd was on their feet at the end of the evening realizing they had seen a world class musical event in midtown Atlanta. Afterwards, a friend who I had brought gushed on about how it was one of the best concerts he had ever been to! What more could you ask for?

Here is a sample of Charlie's incredible guitar work with drummer Scott Amendola on Ellington's "Blue Pepper"

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