James Hunter & Ryan Shaw at Birchmere
The existence of souls is a question for philosophers and theologians, but for anybody who caught the perfectly paired lineup of James Hunter and Ryan Shaw at the Birchmere last night, the existence of soul is an empirical fact. Soul -- the music, and the grit and fire it takes to perform it with conviction isn't the only thing the middle-aged white guy from Colchester, England, and the young, dreadlocked black guy from Decatur, Ga., have in common, but it's the only one that matters.
After an apocalyptic jam from his three-piece band, Shaw opened the show proper with a hair-raising, a cappella exorcism of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," the devastating civil rights anthem that captured the national mood in 1964, and today. The show lightened up from there, the love ballads and dance songs (nearly all of them covers) showing off Shaw's limber, scruffy pipes to equally powerful effect. On an extended rave-up of "Do the 45," Shaw introduced a vocal technique that landed somewhere in between beat-boxing and scat-singing -- it sounded like a guitar with a wah-wah pedal, minus the guitar and the pedal. If melisma is the Force and Mariah Carey is Darth Vader, then Shaw would be Obi-Wan Kenobi, a steady, beneficent presence who uses his potentially destructive powers for good. Shaw's sharp backing trio burst at several points into caffeinated Led Zep crunch, recalling Living Colour, the funk-thrash-soul-pop act that had a big hit 20 years ago in "Cult of Personality" and soldiers on in relative obscurity.
Hunter's 85-minute headlining set was, with a few exceptions -- "The Very Thought of You," the Five Royales' "Baby Don't Do It" -- consisting of merrily anachronistic R&B originals, all written in the iPod era. But there was nothing quaint or musty about the way Hunter's septet, anchored sonically and visually onstage by a double bass and two squawking saxophones, made the songs shake and shimmy. Good as his players are, Hunter was better, vocally recalling Van Morrison in his prime. (But Hunter smiles a lot more.) The Arthur Butler-Jerry Lieber standard "Down Home Girl" (Tom Petty learned it from the Rolling Stones, but Hunter learned it from The Coasters) was the highlight, a fine showcase for Hunter's blazing tremolo-picked guitar.
The '60s might have been a century ago, but somehow, the 46-year-old Hunter and the 28-year-old Shaw remember them vividly and fondly.
-- Chris Klimek