ST. PETERSBURG — James Hunter is a soul drifter, a longtime British busker in search of, and in love with, an American musical past. On Friday, at the opening day of the Tampa Bay Blues Fest at Vinoy Park, his quest continued, looking to link the heartache shake of Sam and Otis and Ray to modern times.
Looking like a suave bloke who might play poker at the fat tables (even though he loves to talk about how broke he is), Hunter is also an ever-grinning cutup and an unabashed showman. So he'd no doubt think all that "soul drifter" stuff was rubbish.
If you think he channels the mighty spirit of Cooke, Redding and Charles, that's fine. If you shimmy and smooch to his time-travel tunes, that's even better.
"Is there a law against dancing here?" the 45-year-old singer asked security when he thought an up-front fan was reprimanded for getting down. Hunter then turned to the accused: "Are you interfering with someone? That's one of my favorite pastimes. I'll join you in a second."
Hunter's 90-minute set was initially greeted with dropped jaws and head-snapping smiles, such is his ability to channel the warmth and memories of a '50s-stuck Memphis jukebox. He could get rowdy, too: Riot in My Heart was driven by cop-show horns and hellbound yelps.
Focusing mainly on self-penned material from 2006's People Gonna Talk and upcoming release The Hard Way, he led his five-piece band (organ, stand-up bass, drums, twin saxes) through time-travel grooves and "oh-oh-ohhh"-ing choruses that induced chills. He's also a frenetic guitarist, so he'd duckwalk that sucker as the organ squealed and the horns blurted so low.
Hunter dusted off two particularly killer covers: He put an extra veneer of smooth on Ray Noble's The Very Thought of You, which was so darn romantic you either had to laugh or cry. And for the "5" Royales' Baby Don't Do It, he honored those progenitors of soul with a "filthy" rumbler smirked with innuendo.
A friend and favorite of Van Morrison, who has called Hunter "the best-kept secret" in soul, he finished his set with a bit of call-and-response. It was nothing less than a history lesson: a Jackie Wilson warble here, a James Brown howl there, that Sam Cooke coo driving them crazy and sending them back.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.