Don and I hadn't been sitting long at our table, when the gentleman across from us asked: “You think he'll do 'Boy'?”
“I don't know,” I shrugged. “It's almost eight minutes long, and there's plenty of lyrics involved...we'll just have to see, I guess.”
As it happened, we didn't get “Boy,” but it wasn't an issue – when you're Ian Hunter, your box of tricks doesn't know any limits. With seven albums from his former band (Mott The Hoople) to consider, plus 20 solo efforts, there's definitely plenty of room to do some cherry-picking.
Then again, being spoiled for choice is a nice problem to have. Unlike many artists from his era, Hunter never got the chance to gather moss on classic rock radio – the odd chart-topper aside, like “All The Good Ones Are Taken” – and, therefore, doomed to having his career reduced to those Handfuls of Hits that they'll never stop hammering through the ground.
While many of his peers are struggling to plug the nostalgia gap – as the wiseguy line goes, new albums are just souvenirs for the inevitable comeback tour – Hunter feels confident enough to air eight of the 11 songs from his latest album, When I'm President, sprinkling them evenly among the obvious (“Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” “All The Way From Memphis”) and less obvious (“The Moon Upstairs”) touchstones that have defined his career.
The opening one-two punch of “Comfortable (Flying Scotsman)” and “Once Bitten” set the tone for what was to follow – two hours of unapologetic, no-frills rock 'n' roll, ably driven home by his long-standing all-star combo, the Rant Band. Guitarist Mark Bosch played with economy and flair, providing the right textures that each song required, while multi-instrumentalist James Mastro bounded from guitar, to mandolin and back again – and Steve Holley, the former Wings drummer, rode shotgun on the backbeat. (The whole band worked together quite well, actually; these were just the folks who stood out, to these ears.)
With such distinctive players, it's hard to put a foot wrong, but there'd be something missing without the unflinching emotional directness of Hunter's lyrics – which is one reason why those of us who've followed the man for this long continue to revisit them. One of the most obvious examples came about halfway through the show, with “Michael Picasso,” Hunter's tribute to his late guitar partner, Mick Ronson, who died in April 1994.
The song's opening lines (“How can I put into words, what my heart feels/It's the deepest thing/When somebody you love dies”) cut to the heart of what it's like to experience such sorrow and loss. As “Michael Picasso” wound down, scattered voices in the crowd shouted about how much they missed Ronson – to which Hunter responded, simply:“We still do.” Those who saw him – as I did in early '90, at London's then-Hammersmith Odeon – have never forgotten the man's impact.
But that was just one high point among many. The show rocketed up a notch when Hunter moved to the piano, which he pounded as his life depended on it through rousing back-to-back versions of “All The Way From Memphis,” and “All-American Alien Boy,” plus a searing, slow-burning romp through “Isolation” (John Lennon) – one of two covers on this occasion, besides the ever-statutory “Sweet Jane,” but a welcome surprise, all the same, and a good showcase for Hunter's raw, world-weary vocal style.
“When I'm President” sounded punchy and self-assured, propelled by a bristling, Stone-ish guitar attack, and a chugging keyboard figure that owes a little debt to the Who's “Won't Get Fooled Again” (at least, to these ears – ask me again in a couple of months). Given the paralysis that's gripped Capitol Hill in recent years, the lyrics may remain true to life for some time to come, but we'll stay tuned (“You hold those truths to be self-evident/When you become president/'Cause something happens to you up on the hill/It's business as usual/How do you want to buck the system?/Welcome to the Pit and the Pendulum”)/.
The show ended with a roughly 15-minute medley that wound through the lesser-heard pastures of Mottdom (“Roll Away The Stone,” “Saturday Gigs”), followed by “Life,” a gem that closes the new album (“Hope your time was as good as mine, you're such a beautiful sight/I can't believe, after all of these years, you're still here and I'm still here/Laugh because it's only life”), and then, the band sprinted across the finish line, with “All The Young Dudes” (as often as this number turns up, does he sing it in the shower?).
Not one for resting on his laurels, Hunter never sounded more relaxed and confident than he did here, hammering his guitar for dear life on this summit of the old and the new, as the crowd sang along with gusto. All in all, a perfect ending to a perfect night, one that passed fast and furious with nary a word from the man – except for a sly joke, just before he launched the encore: “That's the trouble with being good...you've got to come back.”
By all means, Ian, please do – with outings like these, you're welcome any time.