Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Steve Hunter - Manhattan Blues Project: Fan Fueled Finery of the Highest Order

"Steve Hunter gives Satriani some serious competition for instrumental guitar album of the year for 2013 with his latest, The Manhattan Blues Project. This one is fantastic from beginning to end. Bring a bottle of wine."

Oh, that should every Kickstarter dream end this sweetly. Veteran guitarist Steve Hunter came off the road with his old shock-rock boss, Alice Cooper, and he humbly and charmingly asked his fans for help in the recording of his next album. Five grand seemed like a deal, so I signed on and tried to do what I could to raise the project's awareness - I say this not for self aggrandizement, but rather because that is how this kind of stuff has to happen for the record business to ever make sense again. Right premise in action.

The request for the five grand? As I both thought and hoped, the project did well, eventually raising almost $14,000 - what goes around comes around, and Hunter hasn't just recorded an album, he's made one of the coolest fusion guitar records since Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow blew my mind as a young neophyte of the guitar. I say fusion not to invoke the Di Meolian jazz of the past, but to convey that there are plethora styles and sounds to be found - a true fusion.

I have to start with how the damned thing sounds - every time I have put the record on, I have almost involuntarily shut the blinds and turn down the lights. Sonically? This is bliss. The attention to detail found on every track is almost startling in this day of super-quick production (which have both their ups and downs). Hunter's limited vision may slow him down some at the mixing board, but this might be the best sounding record I've heard yet this year, so I thank him for the obviously loving care spent here.

The Manhattan Blues Project isn't a rock, blues, nor even a jazz album, this one truly transcends the labels as most be called what it is - guitar music. Steve's playing is subtly beautiful as bends speak like voices, and rhythms are so precise that you only later realize you've been dancing. His soulful use of dynamics is masterful, and I hear how much he reveres The Beatles - he loves them with his ears, and there are no direct quotes, just lovely suggestions. You'll catch them from time to time, and you'll smile.

Prelude To The Blues floats in on a dream, and you hear several echoes of swiped steel strings being tossed around the stereo field before something familiar sounds with some of the best pure guitar tone you're ever going to hear - can you say, lovingly caressed? Thick synths comes in waves as an acoustic guitars sounds the arrival of some majestic strings, and Hunter plays just above it, but never over it. Composition is everything, and this is a brilliant introduction to what lies ahead.

New York has a sound. More precisely, Manhattan has a sound - sexy, strong, and sultry. Sure of itself, and when Hunter arrives at 223 W. 23rd, he's sure of himself - generally when a guitar plays something that is inspired by glory of Jeff Beck I run for the hills, but The Deacon nails it. Hunter may be best known for his occasional and brilliant forays into the world of hard rock, but he's also a guy that taught at GIT and has recorded a wealth of experience playing in many genres. This tune is a great bit of gritty, best of the seventies smokin' goodness. This sounds like Beck in the belly of the beast, with great licks, fat tones, a great solo by the all too seldom heard from Michael Lee Firkins, and Hunter's playing, writing and programming is perfect. I'd say even more good things about this one if I had the room -  one of the best cuts of 2013.

Gramercy Park is all ethereal acoustic and silky smooth slide and single note wonder. This guy treats every note like an occasion, and while he might be playing for the ladies, their gents are going to dig it. Karen Hunter supplies some tremendously sumptuous vocals in the way of choral and background harmonies, and they are not just perfectly placed, they are extremely well orchestrated and recorded.

A Night At The Waldorf is very Gretschy and Chet-esque, as Hunter fingerpicks some comped out chords, he plays a flowing melody - Phil Aaberg joins in with some piano that reminds me of an old Supertramp sound (just a reference to try and hook you), and Hunter kicks the volume up a few notches and his biting, compressed tone serves as a primer on how it's supposed to sound. Turns out Hunter is the best engineer he ever had. A classy tune that will joust with Satriani's Three Sheets To The Wind as this year's best show tune. Very elegant.

The minute you hear the intro to Solsbury Hill, you'll go - "Oh yeah, I know that but I never knew who played it." Or just how much Steve Hunter owned it, and made it his own, both then and now.

Steve Hunter has known and worked with Jason Becker since they became friends while recording David Lee Roth's A Little Ain't Enough album back in 1990, and their collaboration continues with the Becker composed and programmed Daydream By The Hudson. More melody and a nice bridge into one of the discs many highlights, the pop glory of Flames At The Dakota, which is filled with echoes of John and George - acoustic guitars that diminish nicely as the single notes are sartorially rolled out. Good taste personified - compositional and production-wise, this is just classic.

Hard rocking blues arrives on The Brooklyn Shuffle with some very fat comping and some low end single string wrestling that struts along at a cocky pace - Hunter's joined by a couple of guys named Depp (Hey Johnny, let's do a guitar interview, man) and Joe Perry, and they take some great turns that gives the disc some extra spice as they line up to play with the master. Maybe not everyone realizes just how much everyone in rock 'n' roll has loved Steve Hunter, but believe me - they do.

Hunter takes the motor city on a trip through the burough with the Motown classic, What's Going On, and somewhere in the cosmos, Marvin Gaye is smiling. When Hunter hits his high notes, they never hit too hard or come across too harsh - his command of his guitar, his amps and effects are sublime, and every tone is the one you want to hear. This is one of those records in which you can hear the finger on the string, and the string upon the fret - no guitaristic prophylactics, just pure love.

Ground Zero is another top-flight composition that suggests past memories without looking into windows, or in closets. The mix of acoustic and electric seldom goes this well, but they dance and sing around one another like lovers. You hear and enjoy every note.

The shredders show up on Twilight In Harlem with solos being taken in turn by the one and only Joe Satriani (who now has competition for guitar instrumental album of the year), and Jason Becker's old pal, Marty Friedman. The funny thing is how both guys do exactly what they are famous for doing, and it fits like a glove next to Hunter's more relaxed style - there are many ways to achieve your goals with a guitar in your hands, and this is again re-stated as two players with tremendously different styles than Hunter sit in the mix wonderfully and sound not like it's a shooting match, but more like they're happy just to be jamming. Music for music's sake - that's what we've got here and it's a blessed joy.

Hunter concludes his sonic concept album with a ride into a Sunset In The Park - this brings to mind the best notions that Dickey brought to The Brothers by way of Liverpool. Sound intriguing? You're damned right it does, and that's the promise delivered again and again on this record. There are miles of great ground on display here - Manhattan has truly been envisioned beautifully by a guy who may not see that well, but knows exactly what's where and why.

Steve Hunter did his fans a right honor with this, an album they had ponied up for in advance. Congratulations to both the Hunters, their many contributing artists, and the fans who voted with their pocketbooks and won. This is how the world is supposed to work, and I'm always thrilled when it does.

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