There are four blokes on stage with an unenviable task. Tonight’s crowd are here to see one man and one man only, and I’m among them. Ian Hunter inspires a devoted following of fans, much in evidence tonight by the high percentage of the audience being resplendent in their Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter t-shirts (during the course of the evening I also spot one fan wearing a Mick Ronson t-shirt, and even one wearing a Ramones t-shirt, presumably in salute to Hunter’s influence on the punk scene). The four blokes on stage don’t really have the luxury of considering the printed garments worn by the audience in front of them, they have to win over a crowd of fans unarguably hear no one but the band they are supporting. Collectively the four blokes are known as Federal Charm and they do better than anyone could have reasonably expected because the audience numbers significantly swell as they rattle through their set.
Federal Charm make the most of their Thin Lizzy-esque twin guitar attack, boast a drummer that projects a look of unparalleled concentration through his more subtle moments, however wallops away at the kit like a man possessed when the song calls for it, and a bass player wearing the tiniest leather jacket I’ve ever seen. Despite the odds stacked against them Federal Charm seem to have won over the vast majority of the audience by midway-through their rocking live set, to the point where one audience member of advancing years stood near to me seemed to be transported back to the early seventies, to a time when his now collar-length hair was evidently much longer and nodded away enthusiastically as the band did their stuff – from someone who probably did exactly the same when he witnessed first hand the 70s rock giants in their prime, there is probably no higher compliment that he could have paid Federal Charm.
Following a short beak in proceedings Ian Hunter and the Rant Band take to the stage promptly and with the minimum of fuss. I must confess, despite being an unrepentant music geek, there’s very few rock musicians I get star struck by. Seeing Ian Hunter take to the stage though, I was instantly dragged back the best part of two decades when I heard “All the Young Dudes” on the radio for the first time and becoming an instant fan of a man I still claim to be one of the most emotionally honest musicians in the utterly vast and variable world of rock music. Aww hell, I’m star struck. Here he is, the legend himself, fronting the five-piece Rant Band, who are as well-drilled a rock band as you’d ever witness. For half a dozen guys they make one hell of a racket and not only that, they’re that rare thing, a band who are openly and unashamedly in love with what they are doing.
The vast majority of the set is made up of Hunter’s solo material, though “I Wish I Was Your Mother” made a surprisingly early appearance during the set. “Boy” is not a song I’ve ever had much regard for, but after tonight’s rendition, I will think of it with a considerable amount more fondness. I could also say the same for “All American Alien Boy”, the song which takes the gig to a whole different level, as it is quickly followed by a touching rendition of “Irene Wilde” before the nervy levels are changed again by a crowd-pleasing singalong in the shape of “All the Way From Memphis”.
The whole gig is studded with gems, with the highlights coming thick and fast and ranging from a version of “Bastard” which is suitably spat rather than sung, a brilliant “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and the best version of “Sweet Jane” that I’ve ever heard. It takes an experienced hand like Hunter to hold an audience in their hand throughout the entire gig like Hunter is doing tonight, especially as he reaches into his extensive back catalogue for rockers, ballads and all manner of songs which deserved to be far bigger hits than they were. Tonight is not about a show for shows sake – the stage lights are subtle, there’s no spotlight for Hunter, no gimmicks, no pyrotechnic solos – this is about a great rock band entertaining an audience who are out tonight to simply be entertained by a great rock band.
The highlight of the night for me though is a version of “Michael Picasso”, Hunter’s musical eulogy to his great friend and collaborator Mick Ronson, which gives the heart strings hefty yank. Only someone as genuine and as authentic as Hunter can do something like this without leaving their audience feeling emotionally manipulated. Hunter knows his audience though, and has as much respect for them as they have for him. It’s a bond that very few musicians can boast and it’s exactly this sort of thing which has marked Hunter apart from his alleged peers over the years.
What has been notable by its absence this evening has been any over-reliance on Mott the Hoople hits to keep any members of the audience with shorter attention spans pleased. “All the Way From Memphis” aside, the only Mott single that makes appearance, is “All the Young Dudes” as part of a medley played during the encore. The rest of the Mott numbers played were album tracks. Hunter is very much a musician who very much lives in the present, as evidence by him sheepishly apologising for not having a new studio album out, thus tonight being effectively a ‘best of’ set. We don’t care though – tonight every one in the room came to see Ian Hunter play his great music, and that’s exactly what we got. Hunter knew what his audience wanted and that’s exactly what he has given us.
Consider your audience well and truly entertained Mr Hunter. There’s no one in the City Hall Ballroom tonight who won’t be in the queue for tickets next time you pass through Sheffield.