My favorite thing about the Savannah Music Festival is how every year I'm turned on to an artist I'd never heard of before, one who simply blows my socks off and converts me into a major "I'm so going to download their music as soon as I get home" fan for life.
In 2009, for example, it was the African guitarist D'Gary, who performed with Bela Fleck. At last year's festival it was the Malian genius Bassekou Kouyate.
This year's candidate is somewhat unlikely: British soul/R&B singer & guitarist James Hunter, who won over a crowd at the Trustees who, in all likelihood, had also never heard of him before and frankly were there to see headliner Allen Toussaint. As was the case with me, Hunter won over a LOT of fans this night.
The phrase "affable Brit" is overused, but damn if it doesn't fit perfectly here. Entertaining the crowd with his over-the-top Cockney accent, wearing a bright, almost tacky, mod-style suit and looking like a more handsome version of Ian Dury -- anyone remember him? No? -- Hunter wasted no time getting down and dirty with a rollicking set of retro-tinged R&B.
Channeling Otis Redding in his gravelly, energetic vocals -- that would be barn-burner, raveup, Chitlin' Circuit Otis Redding, not "Dock of the Bay" Otis Redding -- Hunter led a crack band through a kinetic set of originals and covers which included two, count ‘em, two tunes by the "5" Royales, a very early R&B group out of Winston-Salem.
Unlike some Music Festival artists -- who, let's face it, can have a tendency to be preoccupied with their own inarguable artistry -- Hunter and his band were having fun up there. They were tight where they needed to be, but loose around the edges. The dynamic was less music festival and more house party.
The highlight for me was -- miracle of miracles! -- not one but two ska numbers, kicked along quite nicely by Hunter's pair of sax players. I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've ever heard ska of any type performed at the Savannah Music Festival, and I really, really hope it's not the last.
The headliner was New Orleans' Allen Toussaint, a brilliant pianist also known for his prolific songwriting, including a bevy of hits for Lee Dorsey. He gave a more polished set than I was expecting, and in all candor, one that came across less like NOLA than Vegas.
From his vaguely jaded patter during a medley of songs he'd written -- in which he repeatedly pointed out how much money other people made performing them -- to his repeated practice of replacing lyrics with the word "Savannah," I got the distinct impression that this undoubtedly extremely gifted musician was going through the motions.
Ironically, on this night the young British dude with the funny accent was more soulful than the old master from the Big Easy.