Last night’s Van Hunt show at Tipitina’s presented easily the most uncompromising popular music I’ve heard since Sparks. He found his audience through his self-titled debut album that presented him as a retro-soul singer—an identity he furthered by singing “Family Affair” with Joss Stone for a Sly and the Family Stone tribute album. Since then, he’s moved away from that, first stepping away gradually, then more definitively. Prince is a more apt reference point in the way that both synthesize a host of pop, rock and R&B influences into something distinctive, but Prince eventually finds his way back to James Brown. Hunt’s core remains obscure, but whether it’s David Bowie or Funkadelic, it rocks.
Live, Van Hunt is an oddly psychedelic, in-your-face rock show, with big, heavy guitars dominating the sound. Nothing on older or newer records predicted that, and it’s hard to imagine a less audience-friendly move than opening and closing with songs from an album that was never released. “Prelude (The Dimples on Ur Bottom)” and “The Lowest 1 of My Desires” from the Blue Note-quashed Popular bookended the show, but almost every song—including his two best known, “Dust” and “Down Here in Hell (with You)”—were revised for live performance, some radically so. “Character” and “Hot Stage Lights” from On the Jungle Floor were almost unrecognizable, with even the melody and the cadence of the lines altered to suit the strengths of his quartet.
By the end of the show, Hunt had worked the crowd down to 30 or so people, but as a friend in the music business said, they were the right 30 people. During the show, another friend was texting a bar owner saying he had to book Hunt the next time he’s available, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who stayed to the end who wouldn’t be telling people about the show. Before he started, I thought I’d be writing about how much I liked Empress Hotel, who opened for Hunt. By the end of the night, the only thing to talk about was someone pursuing such a purely personal musical vision that he seems ready to alienate three-quarters of a room to find the quarter who really hear him.