The Charlie Hunter Trio Continues to Defy Guitar Convention At Higher Ground (SHOW REVIEW)

In the twenty years or so since Charlie Hunter began visiting Vermont, he’s placed his seven-and eight-string guitar playing in all manner of contexts—solo, duo, trio and quartet—but he’s never worked with a vocalist. In the Showcase Lounger of Higher Ground this night summer turned to fall, that patience proved more than worth the wait.

Lucy Woodward almost stole the show. And she might well have done so, wholly and completely, if her two bandmates had not demonstrated the same touch for nuance she did throughout the two sets. In turns insouciant and sultry, saucy and winsome, the woman was the aural/visual picture of well-practiced discipline wherein the notes she belted out on a Nina Simone song were as finely-phrased as those she breathed so softy on one from Teresa Brewer circa 1959, “Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In)”.

If the guitarist/frontman had not so obviously relished her participation, he might not have so keenly complemented Woodward’s performance by savoring the moments his fingers ran up and down his own instrument. But plucking those ringing harmonics, bending some bittersweet notes and dropping the low-register bombs were subtleties similar to the singer’s, but also to those that appeared in the percussion work of Keita Ogawa. And not just in the latter’s solos: the interval with his ‘Porkestra’–consisting of three squeezable piggie toys he turned into instruments even more arcane than those he utilized in his first turn in the spotlight—was arguably no more arresting than watching him accompany his bandmates on his unconventional kit.

The slightly less than two hours the Charlie Hunter Trio performed on stage in this small room was the quintessential intimate concert, that is, mutually (and equally) satisfying for artist and audience. The latter was alternately respectful and loudly encouraging, though not overtly or intrusively so, while the musicians distinguished themselves almost as much by their collaborative professionalism as their technical savvy: near-rhapsodic smiles circled the bandstand as each took turns admiring their peers during intervals such as those progressively intense call-and-responses that occurred between Hunter and Ogawa or when Woodward brought alternately rousing and muted conclusions to tunes such as “Be My Husband” or the idiosyncratic interpretation of Ruth Brown’s “I Don’t Know”.

There was no self-indulgence here, least of all on the part of Charlie Hunter. True to his set break remark to one attendee, Charlie was less interested in guitar heroism than groove, which no doubt explained why it wasn’t til early in the second set he took his first extended solo and only took one other later in the evening (this apart from the scat interval encouraged by the bewitching blonde vocalist). Despite the fact that the blues theme running through Hunter’s music has never been so prominent as in this setting, he never succumbed to the self-indulgence of so many fretboarders exploring the genre.

Anyone familiar with Hunter’s facility on his unique instrument—and there were a few in the audience—was hardly surprised with the speed and accuracy he displayed on, for instance, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”  Yet all those onlookers, plus those uninitiated to his skills, had to marvel at how deftly he downplayed those virtues for the sake of the music: that from all appearances he found it so fulfilling to share the spotlight with his two companion road warriors, especially Lucy Woodward, was simply more evidence of Charlie’s wisdom in configuring this band alignment.

Every shimmer and high step from this chanteuse was as much a natural means of channeling the music as the bandleader’s facial contortions and random shouts of joy as he sat center stage. Meanwhile, the beatific smiles of Ogawa were decidedly more his style, all of which, in its own way, reflected of the near-capacity audience’s engagement with these musicians from moment to moment; on this final night of the threesome’s two-week tour, there was a distinct and very unique air of deliverance arising from this show at Higher Ground.

In fact, exiting the South Burlington venue post-concert, it was difficult if not impossible to escape the notion that this rare fusion of vocal and instrumental talent constituted a rite of passage even more profound than the autumnal equinox that had occurred while the Charlie Hunter Trio played: these players had outshone the bright, near-full moon hanging high in the sky outside.

Photos courtesy Ross Mickel Bootleggers Beware Photography



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