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Ian Hunter, The Village Underground, NYC: New York City’s the best! November 30, 2001

Posted by Anton A in British music, Ian Hunter.
Tags: ,

What a New York night!  An evening extraordinarily rich in memories and emotions.  One of the best ever.

A week ago, en route to the Village Underground to buy tix for the Ian show, I’d stopped to read a restaurant menu at a place called Bella Pasta.  One of the waiters came out to chat with me, young guy, obviously had grown up in Italy, full of that Italian warmth & charm; I figured OK, this is the vibe, this is where we’ll have dinner before the show.

Tonight was unusually warm for the last day of November. Bella Pasta had the sidewalk tables out.; perfect.  We sat down to a delicious Italian meal, one door down from the corner of Bleecker & Carmine, less than a block from the apartment where I first lived in the City in the summer of 1971.  Across the street stands Our Lady of Pompeii, a wonderful Romanesque church where my wife had gone to Mass when she was at NYU in the ‘60s, years before we’d met.  The white façade and bell tower looming under skitting clouds & a full moon created a glorious atmosphere.   The occasional roar of a jet overhead made me flinch every time; I silently cursed the FAA for allowing flights over the City so soon.  Still, it was lovely to sit outdoors in the evening warmth and remember that this would always be my original New York neighborhood.

After dinner we strolled around the streets to smoke up before the show — the VU bills itself as a nonsmoking club, tho in reality people still indulge, but the club’s policy seems to prompt everyone to exercise restraint.

The Village Underground – what a venue.  The sound system puts every other club I’ve visited to shame.  With Ian & the band, you had 6 instruments and 4 voices.  Each element was crystal-clear and distinct for every second of the show; it was astounding.

The VU is relatively new, maybe a year old at this point, but the place has a history.  Its genesis came from the closing of Tramps, which for years was THE club for eclectic music in NYC. Tramps was an oddly shaped room with quirky acoustics; everyone from Gong to Steve Earle to John Entwistle to James Brown had played there.  The wizard who’d done all the bookings for Tramps took a year off but started missing the biz.  At that time, Gerde’s Folk City was going out of business. Folk City was a Village institution where many of the ‘60s folk artists got off the ground; a kid from Minnesota who’d taken the name Bob Dylan honed his chops there.  The Tramps guy hooked up with another fellow to lease the place & start a new club.  Their  plan was to build a state-of-the-art sound system and hope that the chance to play in a great room, along with the historic aura surrounding the site, would attract artists who ordinarily might not appear at such a tiny venue.  The plan seems to have worked; after tonight’s show, I’d go there to see anyone I’m remotely curious about because I know they’ll never sound better.

The club is actually in the basement; the room that was Folk City is now a nifty Village bar named The Fat Black Pussycat.  You buy your advance show tix there from the Tramps guy, who prints out your tickets from a small PC at the end of the bar.  Somehow seems like the right way to do it.

The show itself slides right into my Top 5 (don’t ask me what the other 4 are just now!).  Ian’s band seems every bit as good as I remember Mott and Hunter-Ronson at their peaks; they deliver every song so well, & with the astonishing sonic clarity in that room, it was a night that will live in my memory.

I confess I am far from objective with Ian; there are so many memories that go way back now.  Mott The Hoople & Ian’s first solo album were a major part of the soundtrack to our four trips to the UK in the 1970s.  Bicycling thru the Lake District & Scotland & Wales by day, it seemed like there was always an Ian tune playing in my head. At night I would scour the local pubs, looking for a jukebox with some Mott tracks…. At the time, it seemed like that was all I needed to find a certain kind of happiness.

I’ll post a full set list below. Some highlights: Ian opened with Once Bitten Twice Shy, & then Good Samaritan, Purgatory & American Spy from the new Rant album.  I was yelling for 23A Swanhill after every tune, & they got to it early, a great song on record that’s an even better live vehicle with this particular band, it ROCKS.  Chalk me up as delirious with glee at that point.

Somewhere in there was Boy, one of my faves from Ian’s first solo record back in 1975.  “Boy, take a turnpike heading West…”  Those words had always seemed to call to me, evoking memories of a cross-country drive to California with a friend in 1970.

Then there was Central Park ‘n’ West.  “If yer gonna be crazy, and live in the city, New York City’s the best.”  That line tore me up.  Talk about your epiphanies.  My love/hate relationship with NYC has been severely amplified since 9/11, as I guess is the case with many of us here.  The crowd really got into the song while Ian & the band rocked on it.  At the end, Ian shut the band down & we all sang the whole chorus one more time with the man a cappella, 350 voices singing their hearts out.  I think it’s the loudest I’ve ever sung in my  life.  It was an overwhelming moment; a lot of the love for the city that I’d lost touch with since September came flooding back into me right then.  I hope I can hang onto that feeling.

As  I expected, Ian sang Michael Picasso, dedicating it to George Harrison & his family.  It’s the most wrenching, emotionally raw & honest song about the death of a friend that I know.  If you don’t have a tear in your eye at the end of the first verse, you’re probably dead too.  Ian sang it beautifully, that first verse just him & his acoustic guitar, then the band chimed in with perfectly elegiac tones & textures. 

There were more rockers to get us jumping & stomping & lift our spirits, interspersed with ballads that keep you focused on the important things in this life – Just Another Night (which Ian intro’d by saying, “I’m getting a little tired of doing this one,  but the band plays it so well, I’m sure they’re gonna carry it, so we’ll do it one more time,” and he was not wrong), All the Way from Memphis, Cleveland Rocks, Irene Wilde, I Wish I Was Your Mother, Dudes… 

Such an exceptional show.  So resonant and full of emotion, so much excellent musicianship, for two full hours.  It was memorable to experience it with the love of my life by my side.

Here’s the full set list; the order of songs between the first four and the finale may be off —

Once Bitten Twice Shy
Good Samaritan
American Spy
23A Swanhill
Central Park ‘n’ West
I Wish I Was Your Mother
Dead Man Walking
Michael Picasso
Just Another Night
Cleveland Rocks
All The Way From Memphis
Irene Wilde
Saturday Gigs/All The Young Dudes