Ian Hunter – Strings Attached: A Very Special Night with Ian Hunter (2003/2014) [TrackList follows] – MIG 50022, (2 CDs) 52:36, 49:20 [5/27/14] ****:
(Ian Hunter – vocals, guitar, harmonica; Andy York, Torstein Flakne – guitar, backing vocals; Kjetil Bjerkestrand – keyboards, arranger; Sven Lindvall – drums; TrondheimSolistene – strings)
British singer and songwriter Ian Hunter is best remembered for his short sojourn in the hard rock group Mott the Hoople, who had minor early ‘70s success on both sides of the Atlantic. His subsequent solo career did not deliver as much financial attainment but did yield discerning critical response and by the late ‘70s he connected to a newer generation of music makers: Hunter produced English punk rockers Generation X, and in turn the Clash’s Mick Jones produced one of Hunter’s releases.
Over the ensuing decades, Hunter issued lots of records, disappeared off and on, and relinked with fans in the last decade with new albums and a Mott the Hoople reunion. On January 29th and 30th, 2002 Hunter went to Oslo, Norway and did something many others have done. He went on stage and unplugged. The results are found on Strings Attached: A Very Special Night with Ian Hunter. The performance was released in 2003 as 2-CD package and a single DVD. Both versions were reissued earlier in 2014. This review refers to the 2014, double-disc compact disc. The 2014 release apparently is the same as the 2003 one. It has not been remastered, and does not contain bonus material or fresh liner notes.
Mott the Hoople might have rocked hard, but Hunter (the primary singer and songster) was not afraid of placing his heart on his sleeve, and put emotional spins on tense, smart songs which often cited his working-class background. He continued mining similar territory throughout his post-Hoople years on a series of recordings. Thus, Strings Attached is a fine retrospective, since it harnesses Hoople material, and various Hunter solo cuts. For this nearly two-hour concert, Hunter is supported by guitarist Andy York (who worked on previous Hunter albums as well as with John Mellencamp and Nils Lofgren); a few Norwegian rock artists; and classical music strings group, TrondheimSolistene, known in English as the Trondheim Soloists.
The ten tracks on the first CD comprise a mix of nostalgia, pathos and autobiography. Hunter strengthens the title track from his 1983 record, “All of the Good Ones Are Taken.” The original inception was marred by a somewhat dated and stiff production. But here, the melody is sweetened by the strings, and the ode to faded romance finds Hunter in sturdy voice, where he summons the fervidness which has always been a sign of his best music. Longtime Hunter listeners might discover themselves consciously or unconsciously singing along to the chorus. Hoople’s 1972 number, “I Wish I Was Your Mother” is another memorable piece of personal history. Some may consider this one of Hunter’s most tender love songs (maybe it’s the fragrant melody or the swaying mandolin), and yet it’s really about jealousy. Reportedly, the first time Hunter’s future mother-in-law heard the song she told Hunter’s fiancé not to wed him. Hunter does not bolster marriage as much of a gift with lyrics such as “Cause even if we make it, I’ll be too far out to take it,” And he cautions, “Is there a happy ending? I don’t think so.”
Hoople’s biggest chart hit was 1972’s “All the Young Dudes” (specifically penned by David Bowie for the group). Hoople’s rendering featured electric guitar and swelling organ, but on this translation Hunter focuses on melody, which is highlighted by opening and closing strings interludes, and harmony (Hunter’s incisive sing-along chorus is carried flowingly by a backing chorus). Hunter has never misplaced his ability to write poignant tunes, evidenced by “Twisted Steel,” his tribute to events on September 11, 2001. The arrangement has a clap-along structure, but the lyrics are heartfelt and powerfully responsive. Hunter turns up the heat during another recent piece, “23A Swan Hill,” his paean to escaping his blue-collar upbringing and neighborhood, where alcohol abuse, crime and ignorance were prevalent.
The second CD, which has nine tracks, has fewer gems from Hunter’s early days and may not appeal to elder fans quite as much, but this side has some durable cuts worth noticing. One conspicuous ballad is 1979’s “Ships,” from Hunter’s LP You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic. This is a melancholy tune inspired by Hunter’s turbulent relationship with his father. Hunter takes the clichéd metaphor of ships passing in the night and reuses it as a potent representation of a father and son’s failure to attain common ground. “Ships” effectively utilizes TrondheimSolistene’s unison strings sound. Hunter acknowledges his love for his mother with an earnest interpretation of the chestnut “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” where Hunter pairs his slightly gruff vocals with Kjetil Bjerkestrand’s piano, while the strings provide a stirring instrumental bridge. Hunter continues with his homages with another sincere ballad, “Michael Picasso” (from 1997’s The Artful Dodger), a sensitive goodbye to former Hunter collaborator, guitarist Mick Ronson (also once a member of Bowie’s band, the Spiders from Mars). One of the second disc’s apexes is a shaking “All the Way from Memphis,” a rock and roller’s diary about the change from obscurity to fame. The 1973 Mott the Hoople original was a stomping rock tune. The barrelhouse piano and swinging saxophone are missing; but this rendition has verve and vigor. The album’s live sound and the resultant studio mix down are superb. The emphasis is on Hunter’s vocals, but not at the expense of the instruments; the balance between acoustic and electric guitars and the strings is handled nicely; and the audience rejoinders and singing can be easily heard. The strings section commendably adds elegance without seeming maudlin or mawkish, which can’t be said for other, unplugged sessions which have tapped orchestral ensembles.
CD 1: Rest In Peace; All of the Good Ones Are Taken; I Wish I Was Your Mother; Twisted Steel; Boy; 23A Swan Hill; Waterflow; All the Young Dudes; Irene Wilde; Once Bitten Twice Shy
CD 2: Rollerball; Ships; A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; Michael Picasso; Wash Us Away; Don’t Let Go; All the Way from Memphis; Roll Away the Stone; Saturday Gigs