jump to navigation

Ian Hunter in New York and New Jersey: It’s a bloody long way November 13, 2010

Posted by Anton A in British music, Ian Hunter.
Tags: ,
1 comment so far

Of all the songwriters I’ve grown to admire over the years who are still giving inspiring performances and writing stirring new songs, only Bob Dylan has been at it longer than Ian Hunter. I’ve always felt a very personal connection to Ian’s words and music. Nobody can write lyrics about family, friends and lovers and pull on your heartstrings like Ian. Add his sense of humor, feeling for rock & roll bombast and gift for melody, and you’ve got a combination that for me is irresistible.

I’ve been a fan for forty years. In concert or on record, Ian can still nail your heart to the wall with one quick phrase. Let me try to explain. Yes, we’re in for another long ramble.

I became aware of Ian’s band, the legendary Mott The Hoople, in 1969. (Technically it wasn’t Ian’s band then, but it’s not my intent to write a detailed history here.)  The M.C. Escher image on the cover of their eponymous first album was a stroke of marketing genius; as the psychedelic Sixties were winding down, a lot of kids on college campuses bought the record just to have that mind-warping picture around. We weren’t really prepared for the album itself. It opened with an instrumental cover of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me; driven by Mick Ralphs’ crunching guitar sound, the rendition was blazing but made no conceptual sense as the first song on a debut album. An odd mixture of other cover tunes and originals followed. The singer, distinctively unlike most of his UK contemporaries, didn’t adopt an American accent; his voice was unmistakeably English. The effect was intriguing. A epic eleven-minute ballad, Half Moon Bay, featured haunting organ work from Verden Allen; the song had early flashes of Ian’s lyrical genius that would blossom so brilliantly in the years ahead. The standout track was Rock & Roll Queen, a catchy, driving song that made you want to hear more from this band.

I had only intermittent contact with Mott’s next three albums due to my peripatetic life then. Mad Shadows had two irresistibly driving rock songs in Thunderbuck Ram and Walking With A Mountain, plus another ballad, No Wheels To Ride, and the raw stream-of-consciousness song, When My Mind’s Gone, that made you know Ian was a songwriting talent to watch. The Wlidlife album was an excursion into Dylanesque territory; Ian could make himself sound like a British Dylan when he wanted. I didn’t quite know what to make of it; apparently most of the band’s fans didn’t either. A ballad from that album, Waterlow, was particularly haunting; looking back, I think it marked the first full expression of Ian’s genius at combining lyrical flow and melody.

I completely missed Brain Capers and lost track of the band for a year or so. I found them again in the fall of 1972, when I took a little trip to England. Mott’s fifth album, All The Young Dudes, with the Bowie-penned title track a hit single, had catapulted the band to stardom. They were all over the British musical press. More significant to me, there were Mott tunes on the pub jukeboxes where I was becoming a frequent patron. Ian’s voice was penetrating as ever, and Mick Ralphs had found one of the sweetest guitar tones in the business. Their sound at that point drew me right in; I repeatedly plinked my pence and shillings into the machines and sipped the fine English beer that I’d loved at first taste.

Mott would form the core of the soundtrack to my travels in the UK during the 1970s. I made four trips around the Scepter’d Isle in that decade. It seemed that Mott songs, and then a track from Ian’s first solo album, were always on the pub jukeboxes wherever I went – London, Wiltshire, Wales, Cumbria, Inverness. I spent many pleasant nights quaffing pints of bitter and feeding the jukeboxes. Sometimes my musical choices would lead to chance encounters and chats with other Mott fans. I knew I’d never see them again in this life but it was nice to have those fleeting connections.

To this day, an old Mott track can conjure up images of autumn-colored hills, back roads, ridge walks on the Lake District fells, damp misty nights, cozy pubs, the tastes and scents of Real Ale, and the faces of people I met more than thirty years ago. There’s magic in that music for me; it still runs through all of the solo work that Ian would create in the years to come.

(Fell-walking interlude: there’s a Verden Allen tune on the Dudes album with the chorus, “Walking on soft ground.” I’d heard the phrase for years, of course, but had never really walked on soft ground till I got up top a certain fell above Ambleside. Many Mott fans consider the song to be a minor work; for me it always brings back a bright afternoon on a fell summit, walking, almost bouncing along over a grassy, spongy surface that made me feel lighter than air. It’s the opposite of what the lyrics mean but the association is fixed in my mind. I’ve never found another place like that.)

May 1974 saw the fabled Broadway shows, five nights at New York’s Uris theatre, the only time I saw the band perform. Verden Allen and Mick Ralphs had already left the band by then. You could sense things continuing to fragment; Ian would leave the group at the end of the year.

Ian began his solo career, collaborating with Mick Ronson, who’d briefly been Mott’s guitarist at the end. I still view Ian’s first solo album as a high water mark for an artist setting out on his own after the band falls apart. That first tour brought Ian and band, including Ronno, to the Felt Forum in New York on May Day of 1975. I wish someone had filmed that show; it was one for the ages. The late glam outfits and platform boots were a hoot, but they didn’t stop Ronno from wailing on The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nothing But The Truth. That was a rock & roll moment I’ve never forgotten.

Let’s fast-forward through the next twenty-odd years, Ian’s work with a slew of fine musicians on various solo recordings and tours, his move to the U.S., his lifelong friendship with Mick Ronson who would pass from this world too soon at age 46. Ian continued to write and record great songs after that, even though he was no longer as prominent in the public eye as before. It’s telling that the only record label he could find for perhaps his best album from the 1990s, Artful Dodger, was in Norway. Dodger contains Ian’s achingly painful tribute to Ronno, Michael Picasso, and a wry yet heartfelt song about his own youth, 23A Swanhill. Both songs have been staples in Ian’s concerts ever since.

We’ll hit “Play” at the next significant date in my life, September 11, 2001. I worked in downtown Manhattan then, commuted through the World Trade Center and was perilously close to the horrifying events of that dreadful day. I was shell-shocked for several months after. An Ian Hunter show in The Village at the end of November, with a particularly timely performance of Central Park ‘n’ West, snapped me out of it and set me back on the road to sanity. You can read the full story here in my blog archives. I’ll never forget that moment either.

I followed Ian’s work through the first decade of this new century. He began working with a new group of musicians that became The Rant Band; they recorded three more superb solo albums. I caught Ian’s shows whenever I could. I enjoyed the way he interacts with his fans in the Horse’s Mouth section of his website. I knew that I was in for a treat when three area shows were announced for the second week in November even though the second night, out in Pennsylvania, was beyond my reach.

Thursday’s show at the Highline Ballroom in NYC was full-tilt electric. Ian switched up the setlist to include such rarities as Life After Death and Shallow Crystals. He gave us a glimpse of Mott’s glory days when he brought out the fabled Maltese Cross guitar. It’s not my favorite club when it’s packed, since the stage is low and visibility isn’t great, but the sound was good and the band was tight; the night crackled with electricity.

Saturday night at The Tabernacle in Mt. Tabor, NJ was very different. (I’d first visited this unique structure for last year’s Hot Tuna show.)

David Johansen opened the show, accompanied on acoustic guitar and high-hat by Brian Koonin. He kept the crowd engaged with a mixture of songs from throughout his long career and an old blues tune or two. His distinctive voice resounded in that remarkable concert space.


Ian and company dialed back the volume for the venue, with more acoustic instrumentation and softer electric sounds than usual. Ian changed the setlist again for this particular night, replacing some of his standard rockers with a generous dose of back-catalog rarities. The result was pure magic. The band found new nuances and subtleties in the arrangements; Ships, Man Overboard, Angel of 8th Ave, Wash Us Away, Boy, 23A Swanhill and Michael Picasso were stunning.


Waterlow was a particular highlight of the night; Andy Burton found some gorgeous synth textures to accompany the song.  Every word seemed to float in the air after Ian sang it.



I hung around the little Victorian square in front of the Tabernacle after the show, waiting in the cold misty air with a few other diehard fans, hoping to say hello and thanks to Ian in person, but it wasn’t to happen.

On my way out, I walked through the merchandise tent and did a double-take; yes, that was Ian’s longtime sideman and bandleader James Mastro helping to break down the table, putting away CDs, counting T-shirts and stuffing them into sacks. I asked how he’d gotten roped into that; he grinned and said that one of the usual merchandise guys was MIA that night so he’d been pressed into service. The glamorous life of a rocker! We had a brief chat; James was very affable and gracious. Would Ian have any other sort in his band? It was the perfect note to end a rare evening.