Review | An Evening With Robert Hunter In New York City

Words by: Chad Berndtson

Robert Hunter :: 10.10.13 :: Town Hall :: New York, NY

I mentioned to a good friend that I was seeing Robert Hunter and his response was “Hmm. Why?”

It wasn’t meant to be sarcastic or flip. As an inquiry, it’s legitimate: the Grateful Dead songs that bear his unmistakable stamp – not the entire point of a Hunter concert but impossible to de-couple from any reasonable discussion of it – are being performed with serviceable guitar and vocals and a bare approximation of the full-on, Dead-on-all- cylinders intensity. Where, I think he was asking, would the music be?

That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that it’s a concert concerned with stripping away what surrounds, getting these legendary songs down to their poetic essence, and taking a guided tour by the writer of what moved him to craft such ageless lyrical beauties in the first place.

Robert Hunter concerts are spare and at times a little awkward – definitely not everyone’s cup of alligator wine. But if you’re a lover of the songs he helped create, they’re both moving and comforting, often in unexpected ways.

Hunter played the last show of this brief East Coast tour at New York’s Town Hall, and throughout it proved he’s the best – the freshest – he’s sounded a decade or longer. The last time I’d seen him perform was as a solo opener for Phil Lesh & Friends more than a decade ago: sun-baked amphitheatres, barely touched seats because it was so early in the evening, Hunter himself seeming a little hassled, walking back and forth across the stage singing songs like he wanted to get through them versus celebrate them, only managing to capture a majority of crowd attention when he played “Ripple,” then disappearing backstage.

This was something different: a true folk concert with an intimate, attentive, loving, oft-celebrating audience, about three-quarters full if we’re being generous. Hunter himself didn’t engage much – he’s not the warmest stage presence – but he wasn’t businesslike, either, pouring energy, astute phrasing and even goofy charm into the songs, briskly moving through some, spending more time with others, lingering in their mythology.

He’s a reliably quirky performer. Sometimes he’ll jump vocal octaves or punctuate a turn of phrase with an abrupt yelp or growl. Sometimes, as he himself admitted during a shaky reading of “Sugaree,” he’ll get a little “lost in the jungle,” fingerpicking with gusto yet hitting brown notes and projecting uncertainty in his destination, so dropping un- smoothly back into verse.

But this was a confident performance – Hunter seemed legitimately buoyed by such an adoring audience, even when he admitted he’d rather let the songs do the talking during repeated requests to “tell us some stories.” When he was at his best, he sung cleanly while caressing certain words and phrases, letting his vocalization wander a bit during a tender “Box of Rain,” or steering “Franklin’s Tower” into troubadour territory, relishing its meter, or blending two journeys to Fennario with an on-point mash-up of “Dire Wolf” and “Peggy-O.”

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