Album review: STEVE HUNTER – The Manhattan Blues Project

Steve Hunter

Deacon  Records [Release date 30.04.13]

‘I wanted to look at New York in a slightly different way – I wanted to look at it in a soulful, bluesy way’.

Steve Hunter’s mission statement for this album is the guitarist musical equivalent of Woody Allen’s film ‘Manhattan’, but without the sugary characters.

‘The Manhattan Blues Project’ is an evocative musical portrait of the city that never sleeps, with 12 tracks that drip with rare emotion and feel, as the guitarist pours all of his 42 year playing experience into a heartfelt album. More than that, he successfully achieves his goal of portraying New York in a sympathetic light, and he does so in a subtle and understated manner that relies on the depth and variety of his tone and the intuitive contributions of his well chosen guests.

‘The Manhattan Blues Project’ paints an impressionistic, almost romantic landscape, seen through a reflective and at times introspective musical lens, but one that consistently invites the listener to share his personal vision of Manhattan. Steve presents an inclusive vision of New York, with the slide led ‘Flames At The Dakota’ being ode to John and George from the Beatles. And it’s the combination of carefully chosen landmarks, thoughtful ideas, relevant song titles and gently nuanced notes that makes this album very special.

The contrast between the popular hustle and bustle image of the city, and Steve’s own calmer account, is immediately brought into perspective on ‘Prelude To The Blues’, as he juxtaposes impatient car horns and urgent footsteps with meditative notes and a string led sweep. The opening track lays down a marker that tells us he’s made this album on his own terms.

It’s an unhurried, deeply personal and thoughtfully crafted take on the blues, inspired by New York and suffused with a lifetime’s experience of both the city and as a guitarist.

Steve’s impressive CV includes stints with Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, David Lee Roth, Jack Bruce and Aerosmith, but it barely prepares us for the unexpected intimacy of one of the guitar albums of the year.

His style is closer to the late JJ Cale than you might ever have expected, as there’s an inherent soulful feel predicated on guitar textures worthy of the album’s conception.

‘The Manhattan Blues Project’ is one of those rare albums where the end product matches its stated intention.  And when Steve tells us this is the album he’s always wanted to make for years, his inspired guitar playing, innovative ideas and clever use of guests, suggest he’s as honest as the depth of his tone

He interlinks sketches, moods, grooves and full blown songs on an instrumental album subtly coloured by prepared vocal parts. Some of the tracks reflect the talent of the guests that appear on them – no more so than the mesmerizing slide of Michael Lee Firkins on the funky ‘222 W 23rd’ (aka the Chelsea Hotel), and Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman on the quite exquisite ‘Twilight in Harlem’ – but each song is anchored by Steve’s delicate touch and tone.

He slips into Hawaiian guitar mode to evoke the tranquility of ‘Gramercy Park’ – albeit, it’s a private retreat in the middle of town houses – and adds poignancy on the self explanatory ‘Ground Zero’.

He also explores an elemental, shimmering tone over brushed strokes on a touching remake of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. Much like his acoustic take of  ‘Solsbury Hill’ (which he originally cut with Peter Gabriel), and the nuanced feel of Jason Becker’s all too short ‘Daydream By The Hudson’, he has the ability to strip everything down to its melodic core and then rebuild it in his own expressive way.

Steve Hunter communicates directly from the heart, and his playing has an ‘in the moment’ style that searches for the root of a song. Once he’s discovers it, he quickly moves on.

Many of the pieces such as the beautifully sculpted  ‘A Night At The Waldorf’ immerses you with a feeling of contentment, as he picks out the most delicate notes on his electric guitar over an acoustic wash. He searches out the melody and he lets the notes breath and momentarily float, before they gently descend and fade into the ether.

Having meandered his way though an impressionistic account of New York, Steve hooks up with guest drummer Todd Chuba, who constructs a crisp percussive back-drop to the deep groove of ‘Twilight in Harlem’? The song is suddenly ripped asunder by a lighting shred from Satch and a more considered solo from Marty Friedman, as Hunter slips into an understated rhythmic mode to facilitate a cool use of dynamics.

Such is the emphasis on mood, feel and imagery, that when the album finally slips into the heavier ‘The Brooklyn Shuffle’ – featuring Joe Perry and Johnny Depp no less – it comes as  a shock. It’s essentially a link piece between the delicate and weepy tone of ‘Flames Of The Dakota’ and the enquiring tone of ‘What’s Going On’.

The album finishes with the evocatively titled ‘Sunset In Central Park’, which is a beautifully weighted piece with delicate note bends and an emotive tone. A pregnant pause wholly in keeping with an album full of space and time, ushers in a sonorous cello (2 Cellos) led finale, to bring the perfect end to a perfect album   *****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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