Steve Hunter is a legend amongst us guitarists, and has been since the mid-seventies for most of us. You could be excused for not knowing that until Hunter came in with the loping, bubbling, gently cascading riff that is the melody of Peter Gabriel's first solo commercial breakthrough hit Solsbury Hill, that it was a tune that was about to be left off an album. Or, that when Aerosmith's homegrown guitarists couldn't or wouldn't, in came Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, and they became the light that lit up FM radio with brilliant and fiery leads that left the band's fans wondering what happened when they couldn't recreate the guitar magic that made Train Kept A Rollin' such a staple of its time.
Yes, you could be excused for not knowing that Hunter's stinging sweet guitar playing and his creative compositional skills created the famed intro that placed Lou Reed high on the charts with a suddenly sensational live version of Sweet Jane, a song that had long lived in rock's most perplexing poet's catalog until Hunter's first famed tone poem lifted Lou's lines above the din. He was there with Alice Cooper for some of his biggest records and tours, as well, but you could be excused for not knowing this.
But now there are no excuses to not hip yourself to Steve Hunter's stock in trade, his tone poems. He's just released a live rendering of his career highlights that include his brilliant 2013 solo outing, The Manhattan Blues Project, along with some other nuggets from the years, a beautiful rendition of SRV's Riviera Paradise, and of course, since Tony Levin's onboard, they role out a splendid cover of Solsbury Hill.
Tone poems are what you write when you're conveying beauty without using your eyes. You can close them, and still see in the topography of your mind exactly what it is the composer is showing you. This album may be best listened to with a the shades drawn, the lights dimmed, a glass of something you like in one hand, and your hand in another's. It's a sexy son of a gun.
There's nowhere to hide in a setting like this - you have three exceptional players, the aforementioned Levin, Windham hill hero Phil Aaberg on electric piano, and drummer Alvino Bennett (Stevie Wonder, Robun Trower, Chaka Khan) laying down a field of delightful tones, notes, and rhythms that embellish, but never intrude - while they are unobtrusive, remember, these guys are who they are, and their underpinnings are pristine and perfect - like I said, nowhere to hide here.
Steve Hunter has been doing this almost all of his life, so he naturally needs no place to hide - he calmly walks into a room with some very high line heavy hitters, takes a seat, plugs his Gretsch Custon Shop CVT guitars, and owns it for the next forty-five minutes with some of the most tuneful, lyrical, and distinct guitar playing you're ever going to hear. His songs are top shelf, his sound is sensational, and this trip through his tone poems is like a carriage ride through Central Park on the nicest night of the year.
Tone Poems Live is the kind of record that would have seen Steve playing to packed theaters in the seventies and eighties, when an instrumental record could garner some airplay, and there were still magazines, and a pipeline for great, if not singles based music to be heard. This is like a companion piece for Beck's Blow By Blow - it's a mellow, uncrushed walk through just what it is a guitar can do in the hands of a man who can feel, and hear every nuance that is available to him from this wire and this wood.
Hunter is playing great. His touch is superb, as you'll notice as you hear strings being bent on the metal frets, the pick and Hunter's fingers plucking the notes, and his always accurate and deliciously warm vibrato. This is the work of a master showing you exactly what he has accomplished in over forty years of playing with such people as those I've mentioned, and a great many others.
There's no point in going through this track by track - this is an album, a performance piece that should be listened to from beginning to end by someone who loves music, and most likely loves love. It's a very romantic record - there's no metallic leanings to be found, but those with metallic leanings may still find much to love in this vortex of stunning musicality. Hunter is the most lyrical and tuneful of guitar players, and you can hear every bend, every slur, and every chord change with stunning clarity. Like I said, there's nowhere to hide when it's you and three of the best accompanists you can get in a room that is dead silent save for your tone poems. Hunter blows the room away, and if you give him a few dollars and a listen, I'm sure you'll agree with everything I've written.
Great music is being made, of this there is no question - the only question that remains is 'Will good music be supported by its listeners?'
Steve Hunter has turned down the volume over the years, but the Marshall amps have been replaced with a sonority that makes sure they are never missed, and a beauty that may inspire you to write a poem of your own. Check out Tone Poems Live, it's a great trip.