In the closing moments of tonight’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, British pop-soul ambassador James Hunter offered a few vaudevillian turns on guitar. During an encore version of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Love, he played his instrument upward like a double bass, then let it slip from his hands as if he were going to bounce the guitar off the stage floor like a basketball. In general, Hunter acted like an entertainer determined not to leave without a little levity.
The truly funny thing, though, was he didn’t need any of that schtick. The rest of Hunter’s WoodSongs set – specifically, four economical tunes from his fine new Hold On! album – offered a fascinating retro blend of British soul that borrowed generously from pop, rhumba, bossa nova and lots of vintage rhythm and blues. And that was just what you heard within the musical fabric of the singer’s expert sextet, imaginatively dubbed The James Hunter Six. The real magic was Hunter’s singing.
For Something’s Calling, an effortless, good natured soul croon heavily reminiscent of Sam Cooke was employed. Such a reference illuminated the neo-lounge style sway of A Truer Heart as well as the more exacting soul sound – one where the baritone and tenor sax duo of Leo Badau and Damian Hand played with almost metronomic precision and restraint – of (Baby) Hold On and If That Don’t Tell You. There were occasional shrieks of vocal falsetto to fuel the fuss, but the joy boiled down to the Six’s natural but animated ensemble charge and the scholarly soul voice that fronted it.
Portland, Oregon gospel-soul stylist Liz Vice, the program’s other featured artist, seemed almost purposely timid in comparison. Backed only by a drummer and keyboardist, Vice revealed an appealingly melodic vocal tone in songs like Enclosed By You and a meditative cover of Pure Religion (both from her 2015 album There’s a Light). There wasn’t much dimension to her singing, though. A curious encore recasting of the Nirvana staple Smells Like Teen Spirit as a torchy jazz meditation only added to the stoic feel of her set, especially when compared to the combo party gusto Hunter was letting rip alongside her.