Live In The UK 2010

Ian Hunter & The Rant Band

Rant Records / Jerkin Crocus, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The blues tradition is that you never quit; you keep on playing until your last breath. As a result, we’ve watched people like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King take a seat on stage and keep playing live well into their 80s. When it comes to rock and roll, that’s a less familiar phenomenon, but here we are—it’s 2018, Ian Hunter just turned 79, he’s still playing shows and he still sounds great.

This album captures Hunter live as a young pup of 71 back in 2010, supported by his longtime crew The Rant Band and back home in the UK. (Hunter emigrated to the US in 1975, just as he was getting his solo career started after a memorable run fronting iconic British rockers Mott The Hoople.) The band—Steve Holley (drums), James Mastro (guitars, mandolin), Mark Bosch (guitars), Paul Page (bass), and Andy Burton (keys)—is tight and muscular and every bit as worthy of notice as the E Street Band it sometimes feels modeled after. Up front, there’s some mileage evident in Hunter’s voice—it’s a little rougher and not quite as powerful as it was in his prime—but he’s a better singer than ever, knowing just how to use every bit of what he still has to its best effect.

Among the many cool things about latter-day Ian Hunter live shows is you get to hear his newer stuff—which is frequently brilliant—alongside classics from 45 and 50 years ago. Which only underscores the conclusion that, as a songwriter, the man has just gotten better and better and better. In his earlier years, every album would have a handful of terrific songs, but there was also a fair amount of second-tier chaff. Hunter didn’t always make great decisions about which songs to run with, or how to produce his music.

Beginning with 2007’s Shrunken Heads, though, his last four studio albums, whether they’ve been the best of his career or not, have absolutely been the most consistent. You hear it clearly here, as recent winners like “Arms & Legs” and “Big Mouth” are placed alongside the hoary classic opening number “Sea Diver.” Honestly, the new stuff just sounds better. It could be that he simply has more enthusiasm for playing newer material as opposed to songs he’s played hundreds of times, but whatever the answer, “Sea Diver” feels almost like a warm-up for what follows.

From there the show builds steadily. As Hunter recalls the escapades of a younger version of himself in “The Great Escape” he sounds thoroughly invigorated, as spry as he was at the time of the story. It’s also lovely to hear, 30 years after the fervent response it received on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Welcome To The Club, that the opening bars of “Irene Wilde” still get a lusty cheer. He’s an even older man now remembering a critical moment in his teenage development, but that’s really the only difference, other than some playful twisting and turning of the familiar melody; it’s just as poignant and meaningful as it always has been. This is also the first place where the occasional presence of a string quartet at these shows is felt, adding an extra layer of texture and dimensionality.

“Flowers,” from 2009’s Man Overboard, is a solid rocker that leads nicely into “Soul Of America,” perhaps Hunter’s most explicitly Springsteenesque number, featuring mandolin and harmonica reflective of both men’s affection for Dylan. He then segues “Soul” right into “Man Overboard,” another song of social commentary, about feeling lost in the modern world and drowning it out with drink. From there Hunter returns to his massive back catalogue and begins pulling out plums. I’ve never been a big fan of “Waterlow” myself, though it certainly has its partisans among IH fans, but that’s the last bump in this setlist for yours truly.

For 25 years, Hunter’s off-and-on musical partnership with guitarist/producer Mick Ronson was the guidestar for his musical travels. When Ronson died of cancer in 1993, it was a devastating blow that Hunter seemed to take the better part of a decade to recover from—but the first great tune that followed remains one of his very best. Twenty years later, “Michael Picasso” still destroys me every time; it’s simply one of the finest, most authentically moving songs about mourning the death of a friend that I’ve ever heard. As always, Hunter performs it here with deep commitment and vulnerability, keeping his friend’s memory alive.

Hunter follows with one of his great late-period anthems to renewal and redemption, “Wash Us Away,” from 2001’s Rant. It’s such a simple device, but by choosing first person plural and employing gang vocals on the chorus, Hunter turns the song into a collective experience: “Everything’s temporary in this world / Ain't it a shame when you lose someone? / Here tomorrow, gone today / Wash us away, wash us away, wash us away.” Which is exactly why this one comes right after “Michael Picasso” in the setlist—it personifies picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and continuing onward, while emphasizing that this isn’t a solitary pursuit:  “In spite of myself, we rescued one another.” 

The other great song Hunter produced on the ’90s follows with a smashing version of “23A Swan Hill,” a sort of anthemic twin to “Irene Wilde” in the sense that it’s about breaking free from the self-destructive tendencies of youth and making something of yourself. The main set closes with the memorable Mott The Hoople cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” complete with revved-up guitars and a little playful piano in the background on the breakdowns. Still, part of me suspects Hunter continues to play this song just so he can belt out the line “Me, I’m in a rock ’n’ roll band.”

For the encore, the string quartet provides a stately overture to the inevitable “All the Young Dudes,” which remains decades later a virtual national anthem for both Mott The Hoople and its prime minister Ian Hunter. The singalong on the choruses is everything it should be, a cathartic outpouring of fraternal affection. As the last notes fade, Hunter leans into the mic and gives the evening a proper coda: “I reckon I’ve done just about as much as a man can do. Goodnight!” Yes indeed.

Rating: B+

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© 2018 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rant Records / Jerkin Crocus, and is used for informational purposes only.