Concert Reviews

Live Review: Charlie Hunter Trio & the Nels Cline Singers at the Bluebird Theater

Charlie Hunter Trio & the Nels Cline Singers Saturday, July 12, 2008 Bluebird Theater Better Than: Any other bill with two guitarists that’s come through town in the past year years.

I used to see the Charlie Hunter Trio a lot in the mid-‘90s when I lived in the Bay Area, mainly at San Jose’s Ajax Lounge, where I also caught the Greyboy Allstars, Slide 5, the Roots and Ohnedaruth, which was the house band at the Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco. The Ajax was a bit on the small side, but the hippest place in downtown San Jose. Hunter came drove down regularly from Berkeley with Jay Lane, Primus’ original drummer, and tenor sax player Dave Ellis, and I’d try to catch the trio every chance I got.

Hearing this guy on his self-titled debut was one thing, but seeing him essentially handle both bass and guitar duties simultaneously made me realize just how strong the dude’s chops were. The first time I saw him, I think I seriously considered throwing a decade’s worth of guitar playing out the window.

Dude was that good.

It was interesting following Hunter’s career over the last thirteen years or so, watching him enlist an assortment of musicians and trying out various instrumentation combinations with nearly every album he’s released. On his latest album, Mistico, Hunter rocks out a bit more than he’s done in the past with some help from keyboardist and former Colorado resident Erik Deutsch.

Hunter had Deutsch and drummer Tony Mason in two for Saturday’s show and the two will also appear on Bad Moon Strength, Hunter’s forthcoming album to be released next month. The trio played a few songs from the album, including “Astronaut Love Triangle,” as well as digging into cuts from Mistico as well like “Speakers Built In” and “Drop a Dime.”

For a good portion of the trio’s two sets, Hunter and Mason kept the deep grooves flowing and let Deutsch take the spotlight and tear it up on the keys. While Hunter might not have been quite as flashy as he was a decade a go, it’s still impressive watching the guy hold down the bass and guitar parts. It’s almost as if the guy doesn’t have to prove what a bad-ass he is any more, although he did pull out all the stops in the second set, delving into a disco-flavored cut and a shuffle rendition of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” which took a few bars to recognize since it was about half the tempo of the original. A few songs into the second set, Hunter brought out drummer Scott Amendola, who played with the guitarist more than a decade ago on Hunter’s quartet albums, Ready…Set…Shango!, Natty Dread, and the two T.J. Kirk albums, which featured Hunter, Amendola and two other guitarists playing the music of Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Roland Kirk.

In the last decade, Amendola has played with a ton of people, and for the last eight years he’s been a part of the Nels Cline Singers, whose 45-minute set Saturday night was completely astounding. While seeing Cline play with Wilco is one thing, seeing him with the Singers is an entirely different and more visceral experience. Cline, Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff opened their set with a slow, contemplative song that gradually intensified into a wash of sound.

Throughout the set, it was evident that these three guys have mastered art of dynamics. After kicking off “He Still Carries a Torch for Her” with a Sonic Youth-inspired intro, Amendola slowed it down a bit and kept the pulse with sparse bass drum and tom beats, which left a lot of space for Cline to experiment with effects. Near the end of the tune, Amendola beat harder on the toms while Cline fired off some incredibly fast tremolo picking.

While Cline’s admiration of the legendary Jim Hall was evident on “Blues, Two,” Cline prefaced the song by saying it was dedicated to Hoff’s father, Fort Collins-based jazz guitarist Bard Hoff. Cline also showed off some solid jazz chops on the fast bop of “Attempted.”

Save for Cline yelling through his Megamouth into his Jazzmaster pick-up, there wasn’t any vocal singing, butt those guys were more than singing on their own instruments.

-- Jon Solomon

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Being a guitarist myself, seeing these two guitar masters on one bill was awesome and seeing those guys was incredibly inspiring. Random Detail: During Cline’s set, an incredibly inebriated guy behind me yelled out, “I’ve listened to jazz before, but I’ve never heard anything like this!” By the Way: Cline and his twin brother Alex also play on Jeff Gauthier's new album, House of Return.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera