Van Hunt is at ease. If there are any lingering scars from the shelving of his hotly anticipated 2008 album on Blue Note, or questions about his direction and ability to grow, they were invisible during a convincing, intimate set at the Birchmere on Tuesday night.
Hunt is a journeyman and an anomaly in modern black music, but also a captivating example of how a bold lane choice can bring rewards away from the spotlight. His last official album dropped in 2006 yet he can hold audiences rapt with unfamiliar material from demo and bootleg releases. He wears the influence of Curtis Mayfield, Bootsy Collins and The Ohio Players comfortably and sincerely, yet it never feels derivative. And when he evokes The Police, The Ramones or David Bowie, that sounds just as natural.
All of those elements were rolled into an unveiling of his new album “What Were You Hoping For?”, which cranks up the amplifier on the rock flirtations of his previous work and takes more risks. But rather then trot out this long awaited project wholesale, Hunt sprinkled the new tunes in with his best known hits as well the stage experimentations that don’t find their way onto recordings. And the recordings fans thought they knew were peppered with embellishments. “Hello, Goodbye” zipped along in marked contrast to the George Duke funk tempo on Hunt’s 2004 debut, pushed by the aggressive pocket of drummer Ruthie Price. “Character” segued into a funky shuffle that was equal parts Meters and J.B.’s, with some jazz fusion pyrotechnics from keyboardist Peter Dyer.
Hunt’s cheeky lyrics, understated bass playing and vocals that shift from growl to howl held down everything from the sexually charged soul of his past to the punk, glam and garage rock songs on the new record. The juxtapositions were smart and sharp on stage. Hunt put the fuzzy guitars and syncopated hook of 2011’s “North Hollywood” right up against the burning balladry of 2004’s “What Can I Say (For Millicent)”. . And from that nod to arena rock Hunt bounced to a brawny version of the smoky latin heater “Her December,” again from his debut album.
The last taste of where Hunt’s muse led him on this latest release came with “A Time Machine Is My New Girlfriend.” Some bluegrass riffs were thrown in on a surf rock tune delivered with thrash energy. Hunt saved his major label hits, “Dust” and “Down Here In Hell (With You)”, for the encore, assuring that he hasn’t gotten too weird for his longtime fans nor is he uncomfortable with the songs that launched him