B-Sides: Tell me one thing that you've never ever done in your life.
Walter Salas-Humara: Voted Republican.
Tell me something that you've only done once.
Performed in a boxing ring.
Wow. I've never heard that one.
I performed in a boxing ring in Prague right after the Revolution, alongside the guy that was kind of like the Bob Dylan of the Czech Republic. His name was Vladimir Merta. It was a festival kind of situation in Berlin and I was there playing with the Setters (Alejandro Escovedo, the Wild Seeds' Michael Hall and Salas-Humara). Do you know who Bobby Neuwirth [folk singer, Dylan confidante and co-writer of Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz"] is?
He was there, and somehow we started hanging with him, and he was funny as shit. He kept calling us the Settlers. [In voice] "Oh yeah. The Settlers. You guys are great. You've got to come with me and do this gig in Prague with me. You guys are going to be my band. It's going to be great." [Laughs] So we get on this bus with Bob Neuwirth and we show up in Prague and then he's of course doing the gig with this guy that I guess he's known for years playing folk festivals around the world and stuff, this guy Vladimir. And the gig turned out to be in this boxing ring because they didn't have anything at that moment in time. They literally had nothing.
Like I remember we stayed with this guy who looked like Rasputin. And it was him and his family. His wife and his two children. They kicked the kids out of their room. I don't know where the children slept. They stuck them in a fucking cupboard or something. So we got the kids' room and then the next morning they made a big presentation out of breakfast, you know. They put all the nice plates out and everything. And we sat around the table and there was like one egg in front of each of us, and they just had coffee and bread because they could only afford like the four eggs for us. And they didn't speak one word of English. We were just communicating with sign language or something. It was really wild. It was really a great experience. Rob Trucks 9 p.m. Monday, March 26. Off Broadway,
3509 Lemp Avenue. $10. 314-773-3363.
Rhythm and blues journeyman James Hunter hails from Colchester, England, but he nails and then pries loose the Memphis and New Orleans sound that's been the foundation of the U.K. soul revival. After twenty years of recording, he finally earned a Grammy nomination for last year's presciently titled People Gonna Talk, an album of unaffected, country-and-blues-influenced swing. B-Sides caught up with Hunter at his mum's place.
B-Sides: First of all: Do you have blue eyes?
James Hunter: Strictly speaking, I'm hazel-eyed.
Some critics call you a blue-eyed soul singer.
I call them lazy journalists. They can't even look me in the eye when they say that!
You're also not a "traditional blues artist" contrary to what the Grammys think.
Evidently they don't think I'm much of one. They didn't give me the award! I'm mystified by that term. I suppose they gotta pigeonhole me somewhere.
People notice the Sam Cooke influence on your music, but I hear Charlie Rich, especially from the Sun and Smash years.
Oh great, I'm pleased to hear that. You could say that was deliberate. I've always loved Charlie Rich. He had a black feel, he invested country with a jazzy feel. When I wrote "Walk Away," I wrote it with him in mind.
You recorded People Gonna Talk live, even the strings, and you didn't even wear headphones. Isn't that taking the old-school thing a bit far?
Half of [the] high notes, I can't hit them with headphones on. It's like wearing a crash helmet and trying to sing. You want to hear what's coming out of the speakers, so you know you're doing it right. People regard mixing as the whole point. But I think mixing is to enhance what you put into the microphone.
You've been making records as James Hunter for ten years now, but before that you were Howlin' Wilf. I'm guessing you were better than the name.
That wouldn't be difficult, would it? It was a bit of puerile wordplay on my part. Because of the jocularity of the name, people thought we were a comedy act or a slavish Chicago blues band. We were neither. It wasn't that different than what I'm doing today.
Did someone shake you and say, "You're James Hunter!"?
Yes, someone told me that and I ignored them. Two years later I pretended I thought of it myself.
Van Morrison has championed your music, and you've had a long working relationship with the man. Is that as impossible as it sounds?
I can see the conflicts some people run into. People would get in trouble for doing exactly what he told them to do. Whereas I never got in trouble because I never did what he told me to do. When you're faced with a no-win situation, always do the wrong thing. Roy Kasten 9 p.m. Thursday, March 1. VooDoo Lounge at Harrah's Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive, Maryland Heights. Free. 314-770-8100.